Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Keith Luke Responds to "Ideas for a Better Westbrook"

(Editor's Note: This item was originally posted as a response to the posts "James Tranchemontagne's Ideas for a Better Westbrook" and "Taylor Smith's Ideas for a Better Westbrook.")

As I contemplated a response to your wide-ranging posts on how we can continue to make important improvements to both the Westbrook economy and its sense of community, I was pleased with the extent to which we are already well along in the process of addressing many of the issues that have been raised here.

In the coming months, the City will begin overhauling the Web site around the new theme “It Starts in Westbrook." We’ll be integrating new content and new techniques that will deliver more and better information to residents, businesses and prospective new business owners. We’re looking at ways to use new tools like Twitter to pro-actively deliver news and information to residents and those with an interest in the city.

Content creation and management is a challenge for both the public and the private sector, and there are a variety of Web-content delivery businesses that specialize in work with municipal government. When we signed up with GovOffice several years ago, they were among the best. We tend to agree that the tools they provide are dated and ineffective and we anticipate making the move to local talent over the coming year.

There are costs and risks with that as well: The GovOffice service runs several hundred dollars a year, while producing and managing the site locally will cost thousands. The added risk of doing more customized, local work has always been that the local landscape of development talent shifts regularly. We need to be sensitive to the risk of investing thousands of dollars with one developer or one business, only to have them disappear and be forced to start the process from scratch. Despite these costs and risks, we will continue to focus on improving and extending our online services. Mayor Chuluda has challenged the staff to improve this area of customer service because it is the most cost effective way of communicating with city residents.

The Mayor has also called for a plan to communicate a pro-business message about Westbrook. Our community awareness campaign is going to be aggressive, innovative, and as far reaching as resources will allow. The City is fortunate that we have local resources to utilize, so we won’t need to break the bank, either. In 1999, Westbrook negotiated a tax increment financing (TIF) agreement with the television station WPXT, when they moved their operation from Portland to Ledgewood Drive. As part of that TIF, the city received both airtime and production costs for a community awareness campaign. We’ve been working with WPXT on several, overlapping projects to help get the “It Starts in Westbrook” message out.

First, we’ll be creating and airing a series of thirty second commercials spotlighting Westbrook business success stories. Second, we are creating a longer, two-minute infomercial promoting Westbrook as Maine’s leading destination for business development on their Maine Visitor’s Channel, which is broadcast to upscale hotels and vacation properties from Wells to Freeport. (What better way to reach a targeted audience of well-qualified prospects for business development?) And third, we’ll be bringing together WPXT and Cinemagic to present movie- goers with enticing onscreen invitations to visit our downtown restaurants and businesses.
Where does a Thursday, Friday or Saturday night of dinner, drinks, and entertainment begin? It Starts in Westbrook.

We are limited in what we can produce for television and the big screen at the moment, but as soon as the snow melts and the landscape turns green we’ll be filming in and around Westbrook. In the meantime, we will be crafting at least one advertisement that can be shot entirely indoors so we can begin running with the marketing program--people are eager to see what we can do. Will this content be available on the City website? The answer to that question will be a simple yes, and with that you can begin to see how the plan all fits together.

There is also good news for Brown Street and the city’s Frenchtown neighborhood: Westbrook has received almost a million dollars in funding from the Neighborhood Stabilization Act (NSA), and more may be on the way. The City has been working closely with the Westbrook Housing Authority to identify properties on Brown Street and has been working with property owners and lenders to make significant investments in that neighborhood. The Mayor’s priority with NSA funding is to invest it where it will have the greatest demonstrable impact, versus frittering it away on smaller projects that won’t create a ripple effect of additional, positive developments. Now, while this money has been pledged to Westbrook, details on how the program will be administered and exactly when we will see actual dollars flowing into the city are still being worked out in both Augusta and Washington, D.C. This can be a frustrating process, but we are cautiously optimistic that bureaucrats at both levels don’t tie us up too long, because at the local level we are poised to act quickly and effectively.

It’s a bit more challenging to address planning for the potential development at Stroudwater Place when we don’t have much more than a sketch plan of the development to work with at this point. While we remain optimistic that the development will evolve over the next decade, it would be a mistake--especially in the current economy--to invest tens of thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours contemplating a development that has yet to take shape. Having written that, our effort will be to knit Stroudwater Place into the community and mitigate its impact on the environment. We will do this by enhancing transportation links extending access to the downtown with the Metro bus system and extending bicycle and pedestrian trails. The development will also follow industry-leading green technology to minimize its footprint on the environment.

There will be more to it than that. We’ll be looking at communities inside the Route 128 beltway of Massachusetts for examples of how cities like Natick, Waltham, and Cambridge have responded to upscale mall developments in their communities and managed to preserve and promote their downtown business districts. There are success stories out there, and we’ll be looking for them. We’ll also welcome your help in finding them.

In the coming year, we anticipate joining the Cumberland County Community Block Grant (CDBG) program. Once the terms of participation have been worked out, the CDBG program will help promote desirable development throughout the city, while doing things exactly like planning and supporting farmers' markets, community gardens, and parkways. One of my priorities is to bring an arts venue to the Riverwalk, specifically a riverfront amphitheater. While this project did not receive funding from last year’s Riverfront Bond initiative, it is on the City’s list of shovel-ready, stimulus-eligible projects.

The Planning Office is currently wrapping up a draft of Westbrook’s first-ever plan to promote parks, recreation, and open space citywide. The draft plan calls for community gardens as part of an expanded use of the city forest, located behind Wescott Junior High School, as well as an improved public garden at the intersection of William Clarke Drive, Main, and Saco Streets. This will add to the community garden started by residents and our Public Services department in the Brown Street neighborhood. This plan also calls for the extension of the Riverwalk to the north side of the Presumpscot River. Initially the extension will be along Brown Street, then move down to the river. And in the long term, the City would work with SAPPI to safely incorporate the Riverwalk along the riverfront on that side of the river.

Ideas regarding tax policy and ways to promote the benefits of a greener Westbrook economy are all welcome. Unfortunately, with regard to tax policy we are often limited with what we can do with incentives like tax credits by state law. Similarly, while we’ve encouraged SAPPI to install fishways at the Cumberland Mills dam, we also understand that there are additional state and federal implications and are sympathetic to the company’s needs to make these investments on a pace that won’t jeopardize SAPPI’s ongoing viability. Like many publicly-traded companies SAPPI (NYSE:SPP), is currently trading at more than a five-year low.

There are numerous other ways we are positioning Westbrook to really capitalize on the successes that the City has enjoyed in the past decade. We’ve begun discussions with Idexx and other biotechnology companies to host a Biotech Board of Directors Week. We will promote this event to bring together board members from all these firms, who typically represent leading industry firms from around the world, to come together in Maine during the summer to experience what we have to offer. A board member from Idexx already understands that it is possible to succeed in Maine and in Westbrook. I think we’ve been missing opportunities to appeal to that larger group, and we’re building enthusiasm for our Bio Board Week project, which will hopefully be held in the summer of 2010.

One final note on promoting green initiatives in the City of Westbrook: I continue to believe that the best unrealized opportunity the City has to capitalize on is the latent heat energy that escapes into the atmosphere from both Calpine and SAPPI. I’ve been working to identify ways that we can harness these towering plumes of BTUs to heat businesses and homes, and to position Westbrook as a low-cost utility leader for business development.

- Keith Luke

Keith Luke is the City of Westbrook's Director of Economic and Community Development. He can be reached at kluke@westbrook.me.us.


Lynn M said...

I'm really excited about the business expansion that has happened in Westbrook over the last few years. The reason I live in the City is I enjoy city living. My husband and I enjoy walking to various business around Westbrook. I echo other postings on this site and would love to see the Brown Street area continue to become mixed use. I feel city living is so much greener then rural living, you see this in new construction and land development in progressive cities and states.

I also feel just pumping money into that area (Brown St) isn't going to clean it up. I agree cops on bikes work great and educating the landlords could go a long way in that area.

James T said...

Nice letter Mr. Luke. Thanks for taking the time to write this post. Another fine example of the city and it's open communication with the people. The Bio Board sounds like a great idea. Maybe make it a bio/tech board week?
I am a firm believe in bike cops for the brown street area. I is not feasible to police it by cars and as not worked. Also, tax credits for owner occupied multi-units, shaving just $500 a year off their property tax for the 1st 4 years would allow these owner more resources to fix the properties up.

Lynn M said...

James- I really hope they take your suggestion about the cops on bikes. You've been saying this for quite some time and I'm not sure if it was before or after the first time I heard you say it there was an article about the Portland cops on bikes and how effective they feel it is. I manage a lot of property in Portland and I really think it does work well!

Keith Luke said...

James T - Thanks for the support James. From a professional standpoint, I am generally a supporter of tax credit-based incentives. That being said, the City can't create them unilaterally - that would be something that would need to be addressed and legislated at the State level. We can work together to communicate that suggestion to members of our state legislative delegation.


Lynn M said...

Doesn't look like cops on bikes are coming to our neighborhood anytime soon!

Keith P. Luke said...

Lynn M - Sorry I couldn't address the cops-on-bikes issue directly. I can't address public safety policy as readily as I can economic and community development issues, which are my direct responsibility. I assure you that the issue, having been brought to Mayor Chuluda's attention, will be considered.


Anonymous said...

That is great you have an agreement with Fox to get your "It Starts in Westbrook" campaign going, but who is your target audience Keith? Who are you reaching out to? Maine businesses? Seems odd to reach out within Maine when to reach "outside" Maine...to BRING more business to the state is what is required. A lot of GREAT ideas though and a ton of "action" items to go around. We all in Maine need to be engaged in your energy Keith!

Keith P. Luke said...

Anonymous - I appreciate your thought process. We'll be working with WPXT on overlapping fronts and not necessarily limiting ourselves to their advertising vehicles. Most importantly for our purposes, WPXT has a world class video production facility and they are enthusiastic about working with the city in which they are located. One of my goals is to reach wealthy entrepreneurs while they are vacationing in Maine. Our intent is to educate them about what Westbrook has to offer and raise the city's top-of-mind awareness with this important group. The Maine Visitors Channel, a production of WPXT, will help us do that cost-effectively.

Aside from targeting out-of-state entrepreneurs and business owners, I also believe we will have measurable success promoting Westbrook's downtown - especially restaurants - by working with Cinemagic. Face it - right now we're losing too many meals to Maine Mall properties because theater goers simply aren't aware how close Westbrook's downtown is, and the variety of restaurants there are to choose from. On a busy day Cinemagic will seat 5,000 patrons. If we divert just one percent - well, you get the picture.

If times were different and the coffers ran deeper, sure it would make some sense to do out-of-state promotions. Unfortunately, budgets are tight and we need to use some guerrilla strategies. We won't need to wait long to see how well they work - I like that too.


Lynn M said...

Keith- Are you going to be advertising specifc business at Cinemagic? Or is it going to be general advertising? Are the businesses involved in the advertising?

Keith P. Luke said...

Lynn - We're still working out cost-specifics with Cinemagic. Until we determine exactly how much we can afford in the way of promotion, I won't begin scripting spots.


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