LACONIA — The City Council expressed scant interest in hiring an economic development director when the subject was broached during a discussion of the Planning Department's budget this week.
Planning Director Shanna Saunders told the council that "we've heard the need very strongly," referring to the public meetings and outreach efforts undertaken in the process of preparing the Master Plan. In particular, she said that Downtown Tax Increment Financing (TIF) Advisory Committee has expressed support for the initiative.
Saunders, together with Kevin Dunleavy, director of the recreation and facilities department, provide staff support to the committee. Saunders noted the establishment of additional TIF districts at The Weirs and in Lakeport and said that in addition to providing administrative support to all three TIF boards, an economic development director could assist with marketing the city, attracting new businesses and applying for grants.
"We need help," Pat Wood, a member of the Downtown TIF Advisory Committee. He said the committee discussed hiring an economic development director and concluded it would be "a tremendous boon to the city as well as the TIF districts." Noting that the TIF advisory committees consist of volunteers, he said that the investment in professional assistance to them represented support for their contribution to the city. He explained that the proposals of the advisory committees, like recommending a route for the riverwalk or designing the gateway plaza, required the negotiating easements, engaging consultants and engineers, that are beyond the authority of volunteers and placed heavy burdens on Saunders and Dunleavy. At the same time, An economic developer could also shepherd entrepreneurs seeking to open businesses or develop property through the planning and permitting process as well as serve as a "cheerleader" for the city
Wood reminded the council that the city once had an economic development director, who was let go when the Belknap Economic Development Council was originally formed in the early 1990s. He suggested that the position could be funded by the TIF districts, which accrue income from the future property tax revenues that accrue from the increase in assessed value generated by new construction, expansion or renovation of property within them.
However, City Councilor Henry Lipman (Ward 3), who chairs the Finance Committee, called the suggestion "a strategic mistake". He explained that the Belknap Economic Development Council is pressed to fund its operations and the city would gain more by collaboration than duplication.
"You're pushing a rock up a hill with me on this," he told Saunders.
City Manager Scott Myers said he could "see some value" in a part-time administrative position to coordinate the activities of the TIF districts and Councilor David Bownes (Ward 2) encouraged his colleagues to "keep an open mind about the value of an economic development coordinator."
Mayor Ed Engler said that the revenue accruing to the TIF districts should be not be applied to personnel costs but instead used to service debt on borrowings to finance capital improvements.
Despite the cool reception from the council, Wood said that he was not discouraged and intended to pursue the proposal.
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