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Business and Economy

Community Leaders: Increase in Safe Neighborhood Funds Comes at Expense of Downtown Revitalization

AUGUSTA, Maine — A proposal by the state Department of Economic and Community Development to bolster a crime-fighting grant at the expense of other spending projects is coming under fire from more than a dozen community leaders, who want a more balanced approach to block grant funding.

But department officials say the Safe Neighborhood grant program also has a positive effect on community development.

DECD Commissioner George Gervais says his agency's plans to focus on safer neighborhoods at the expense of some other grant projects boils down to priorities. And for the moment, a downtown revitalization program isn't one of them.

"I understand there are some who have issue with the fact that the downtown program that has been a part of the community development block grant program for the past several years, there aren't any dollars in that program for 2016 at this point," Gervais says.

Although most of the $10 million in federal CDBG grants remain unchanged, some such as the Downtown Revitalization Program are being proposed for zero funding so that more money can be spent on what's known as the Safe Neighborhoods program for some cities and towns.

Gervais said no one should underestimate the linkage between drug-fueled crime and deteriorating neighborhoods.

"Cause when there are drug problems in a community that aren't dealt with and there aren't resources to deal with it, it has a negative impact on a community," Gervais says. "So we put it on the program statement this year. We feel that there is a very strong benefit for the communities that are dealing with this program. We left the downtown program in there. There's a good chance that maybe funds become available within the year that can be repurposed for that program. We haven't killed the program. We just don't have the funding in it right now."

But at a public hearing on the DECD's strategy several community representatives balked at the idea of shifting resources.

"The downtown revitalization component of CDBG program has been and should continue to be an important tool of the economic development tool box of Maine cities and towns," says David Rollins, the mayor of Augusta.

He says funding for the downtown center has made a huge difference in his community, with many of the old downtown buildings being converted and rented as upscale apartment units.

Other opponents included Ross Cunningham, who said residents in his home town of Lisbon had tried unsuccessfully to seek private funding for revitalization of run-down storefronts. He says Lisbon lacks a quality of place that more successful towns have been able to demonstrate.

"In 2012 we invited regional developers to speak to our group and to the town council," Cunningham says. "We wanted to know why Lisbon was not considered a lucrative investment for them. They were very blunt. One simply referred tom our town as a dump while others cited a lack of planning standards or community vision."

Cunningham says that lack of private investment makes CDBG block grants the only option for revitalization for many communities.

The department plans to issue a final decision on its selection of block grant programs before Jan. 1.