In the four years that I have lived and worked in Westbrook, I am very proud to see what the city has accomplished. While we face some tough choices ahead, the biggest concerns are: Does City Hall have a clear vision anymore? Will Westbrook’s image of being pro-business start to tarnish?
The stories in our great city are changing. We deal with whether or not the city can work with Pike, Idexx and others to come up with a comprehensive plan for Spring Street. We wonder, Why was the Skybox really shut down? Will the Mayor finally hold its elected officials and city workers to an ethical and moral standard? Is licensing a needle exchange business for drug addicts what this city needs? Finally, will the City take the necessary steps to clean up Brown Street and surrounding neighborhoods once and for good, while inviting business development to both sides of the river? While small issues now, let them not be the first cracks in the dam that go unnoticed. I’m proud to live here with my family and run my business here. As the Grateful Dead’s “Shakedown Street” says, “Don’t tell me this town ain’t got no heart. All you got to do is poke around.”
Here are some of my ideas for a better Westbrook:
Keep Up the Good Work at City Hall
The Mayor's Office and City Hall have done a great job for the city. The Mayor, Bruce Chuluda, and City Administrator, Jerre Bryant, are a well-oiled machine. Having spent years dealing with Portland, it is amazing how fast Westbrook works for its small businesses. I wish this story got more press. They have done a great job replacing Erik Carson as the Director of Economic and Community Development, as Keith Luke seems to be answering the challenge. And under the Mayor’s direction, there has been an overhaul of city laws and regulations. These laws have eliminated numerous red tape issues and cleaned up the language for better understanding and moved the city to the 21st century.
Redesign the City's Web site
This is a huge piece of marketing to get new companies to move to Westbrook. There are a lot of reasons companies hate the State of Maine for business and thus make it more difficult for the city to attract out-of-state companies to relocate to Maine. A Web site that shows the positive aspects of relocating businesses to Westbrook may dispel some myths about doing business in the state. Why don’t we have a list of companies--big and small--which have relocated here, matched with the benefits each company has found?
Also, the information and navigation of the site is poor: The police section--actually most sections--is useless and not up-to-date. The Web site wasn’t even built by a Westbrook company, let alone a Maine one. The city is essentially saying, “Westbrook is where artists live…we just won’t employ them.”
Another idea is to put City Hall’s checkbook on line! We pay our taxes to run the city, now let us see where the money is going. Don’t just post the budget, let’s allow every citizen to see if it is being followed and balanced. Also, all documents should be in .pdf format as well as Microsoft word.
Six Ways to Become a Model for Environmental Policy
1. Establish a community garden. Let people have a space to gather and grow food. We have the land to do it off the Riverwalk, and the fees to have a spot would offset costs. Besides giving people one more reason to come to the river, residents could donate excess crops to churches and food relief groups in Westbrook. I know a lot of people have yards and small gardens, but a community effort to help feed its own would send a great example on how government should work. Compost sites and extending the city’s recycling program would be great as well and could help save money on our parks and recreation budgets.
2. Give tax breaks for homeowners who are remodeling older properties, restoring them, and upgrading them with green technologies.
3. Require a minimum for implementation of green technologies for all new construction in Westbrook. Residential, commercial, and industrial developers should be using the latest in tankless water heaters, solar technologies, rain collectors, wind, and energy-efficient lighting. Developers should have to put a certain percentage of these technologies into new construction.
4. Utilize biofuels. There are enough restaurants that could supply the city with used oil to convert certain town vehicles over to biofuel. A fair dollar-to-dollar exchange for oil to property tax would be a great start.
5. Eliminate one police car in exchange for a 2-officer bike patrol for two shifts a day. This would provide the police additional access to hard-to-reach areas and trails, set an example for health, and eliminate the cost of one car, as well as its associated fees.
6. Eliminate the Cumberland Mill dam and build the fish passage. This can become a great legacy to Westbrook’s image, Sappi’s social responsibility, and can help draw tourists to town.
Build community, while also revitalizing Westbrook's economy
As touched on before, our revitalization of the downtown must continue. The City needs to keep working to get new businesses to come to town. The real estate market has helped young families move to the city, and I feel we could also become a nice retirement community. As Westbrook promotes a safe night life, festivals and family events, it helps to build community. The Mayor and City Councilors need to make sure the image they are projecting is achieved. It is always nice to see our Mayor at different events, the cleanliness of our city, and the pride that is being restored. Through community-building we all become vested in making our city great.
Expand the Riverwalk to both sides of the Presumpscot River
Our parks, Riverwalk, and ball fields are great--but more can be done to help link them. The Riverwalk must be completed on both sides of the river. It has to be safe for all and it must represent the balance of wildlife, city life, and the arts. It would be great to see a sculpture garden, more family performances at the gazebo, and recreational use of the river.
The City should market the areas between River Street, King Street extension, Knight Street extension, High Street, and Garfield Street to be developed for business and recreation. The houses are old and out-of-date, do not have historical value, and could be rebuilt facing the river. It should be rezoned for commercial use only. Give property owners the chance to sell their homes at market value, with possible offsets from the City. A stone bridge for foot traffic from King Street to the park would be a major accomplishment to link the two sides of the river and help develop pedestrian passage.
Clearly define how Stroudwater Place would affect Westbrook's downtown
If the Stroudwater Project is built (and I hope it is), we need the City to provide a clear vision of what that major commercial development will do to our downtown. This includes maps, drawings, and artistic renderings. We need to make sure our downtown stays practical and open in space. I praise the City for working fast with the developers of the project (one only needs to look at Portland’s City Council and the many missed opportunities they have created for themselves because of slow-moving government), but let’s make sure we are not selling out our city. Let’s make sure we are doing our homework and dotting all i’s and crossing all t’s along the way.
Move the farmers' market back to Riverbank Park
I believe if we move our farmers' market to Saturday in the park with a mixture of City-sponsored activities, craft vendors, and ethic food vendors, we would generate additional revenue for businesses and exposure for the city. Make a Hay Market Square here in our park. What a tourist draw.
My dreams for this great city are strong, large, and attainable. We cannot become negative about change and growth, but be steadfast and smart how we grow. My Pepere taught me long ago not only to work hard but also to work smart. I believe Westbrook will come a city unto itself and a model for all of Maine. I feel we must continue to market our strength of urban living with a rural feel.
James Tranchemontagne is the chef/owner of The Frog and Turtle.
Related: Taylor Smith's "Ideas for a Better Westbrook."