Happy summer, Scarborough friends and neighbors! It won’t last long, so enjoy it to the fullest.
After a six month sabbatical, your editor is back – rested, relaxed and raring to go. And how thoughtful of Town leaders to provide a huge controversy as a welcome back gift! We refer, of course, to the new “Community Center” that is barreling down the familiar tracks of “behind the scenes” activities and “informal” negotiations.
What, you didn’t even know there was a controversy? Well that’s precisely the idea! Certain Town leaders (the usual suspects) would much prefer to keep us ordinary citizens in the dark about these crucial decisions until after their plans have been finalized and the propaganda campaign has been fine tuned.
So just what is going on with the new “Community Center” and why should you be scared out of your taxpaying wits? Here’s a quick summary of what’s happening…
You may recall that the $80 million-plus tax break that the Town gave to the Risbara/Michaud brothers for the Scarborough Downs development included very vague language about a community center being built – potentially – on the Downs property. We were assured that there would be a robust process of public consideration of any potential community center, including its components and its costs. That was less than a year ago.
But now – with no public input – it has become clear that those rascals at Town Hall have been up to their old tricks. The community center seems to have now morphed into an athletic venue/sports complex, and the developer/contractor/operator of the new facility has been chosen. (Not officially chosen, of course. Why sign anything when an understanding among the boys will do?)
In retrospect, we should have seen this coming back in April when Risbara/Michaud (“local boys,” you know) signed an agreement with Edge Sports Group (Massachusetts boys) “to pursue an athletic venue at The Downs.” Edge Sports Group (ESG) develops and manages high-end athletic facilities. Their April 23, 2019 press release notes: “The Scarborough facility could include pools, ice rinks, indoor and outdoor fields, spectator areas, and other activity space.” The press release also provides a timeline: “ESG intends to complete its due diligence this summer, with design and permitting immediately following.”
And The Downs’ website currently announces: “Construction will begin this summer and the complex will open in Spring of 2021.” As far as we know, the Planning Board hasn’t seen even a drawing on the back of a napkin of this facility. But construction will start this summer! Now that is a fast-track project if we’ve ever seen one! Perhaps they’re participating in a special Xpress-Approval instead of that usual pesky review and approval process.
So, right off the top of our head, here are a few basic and troubling questions:
- Where’s the promised public process?
- What do we mean by a “community center?” What does it include? Isn’t that different from an “athletic venue” or “sports complex?”
- When did the residents of Scarborough decide that a community center/athletic facility was a priority over a new primary school and library expansion? [This is a biggie!]
- How has Risbara/Michaud’s selection of a developer for an athletic facility been turned into the Town’s selection of a developer for a community center? How did that happen with no public discussion?
- Why is Risbara/Michaud’s developer, Edge Sports Group, “conducting a feasibility study to determine what type of amenities should be included within The Downs facility”? Shouldn’t the Town determine what sort of “amenities” are part of the Town’s community center?
- Why is the athletic facility developer setting the timeline? Did they do that without consulting the Town? It’s hard to believe that could happen, unless the project is totally private with no expected Town financial participation.
There are obviously a host of other questions that need to be answered. We’ll tackle some of them next time. But for now, here are a couple of relevant considerations Scarborough citizens need to be immediately aware of:
How do Scarborough residents feel about a community center?
Sure, having a community center sounds like a great idea – especially when cost considerations are ignored. Who could object to a facility to which the following terms can be applied: friendly, welcoming, gathering place, multipurpose, multigenerational, amenities, centrally located, creative, sustainable?
Actually, though, when Scarborough residents were asked less than a year ago about their desire for a community center, the results didn’t indicate a burning desire for a community center, even without considering what would be included in it or how much it would cost taxpayers.
In a fairly well-publicized resident survey conducted in late summer 2018 in connection with the Comprehensive Plan (where is that Plan, anyway?), only 40% agreed with the idea of “develop[ing] a community center facility, attracting all ages to a central location.” About 27% thought “maybe” it was a good idea, while about 32% disagreed with the idea. So the very basic question “do we want a community center?” has not even been answered. But why would a little detail like that get in the way of the “vision” of certain Town leaders? Full speed ahead!
Is a community center a priority for the residents of Scarborough?
Like beauty, a community center may be in the eye of the beholder. The concept of community center can mean very different things to different people – from a simple gathering place to a high-end athletic venue with pools, hockey rinks, basketball courts, indoor fields and a fitness center. As a result, the costs of a community center can vary widely.
The number bandied about in previous discussions of a Scarborough community center has been $20 million. However given the scope of other Edge Sports Group facilities, perhaps $25 to $30 million is a more likely price tag.
So the question is – as it has been for a couple of years now – does it make sense to build a $25-30 million high-end sports complex now when we have active proposals for a $60-ish million primary (K-2) school solution and an $8 million library expansion? Remember, our current debt level of around $100 million is among the highest on a per-person basis in southern Maine.
And to anticipate one of the phony arguments that will surely be presented when this proposal finally sees the light of day: We will be told that this deal will be structured so there is no Town debt issued in connection with this project. Undoubtedly the “deal” will be complex and difficult to understand. But do not be fooled… we, dear taxpayers, will be paying for this project, even if there is no debt involved. The no-free-lunch principle remains stubbornly in effect.
And remember, whenever you hear the phrase “public/private partnership,” grab your wallet and hold on tight!
In summary, folks, here we go again. Down that well-worn path where a few Town leaders have their way and the public be damned. Please keep your eyes wide open and your (metaphoric) pitchforks within easy reach. We’re hoping the Town will soon let the residents in on the “behind the scenes” discussions that have been going on for the past four months. Please stay tuned! Yes, these are those lazy, hazy days of summer, but this one can’t be allowed to sneak through!
We will definitely keep you informed as the Community Center/Sports Complex story unfolds in all its sordid glory. And there’s lots more good stuff that wouldn’t fit into this issue. Among the features coming very soon are:
*** A tribute to long-time Town Councilor Shawn Babine including details of a “Councilor Crawl” event that’s being talked about for the Labor Day weekend.
*** A new feature dedicated to Scarborough’s arts and literary scene, showcasing new and forthcoming works by Scarborough authors.
A Personal Note
My sincere thanks to the loyal readers who emailed me during the winter/spring hiatus. Your encouragement and thoughtfulness were much appreciated!
It’s great to be back in the saddle! From which location I now wish you all…
Happy trails until we meet again!
What makes you assume it is a Community Center that is turning in to a Sports Complex and not the other way around. What makes you assume that our town will end up paying for a Sports Complex, and not that Edge will assume the bulk of the costs? Just asking?
A fair question. The assumption is partially based on past experience — it’s just the way things have historically been done in Town: a small group of Town officials start with their “solution” and then work backwards to make it happen without considering the views of the residents. In this case, for instance, the questions of whether we need a community center, what it will look like, what it will cost and when it should happen have not been answered… yet we seem to be plowing ahead — on a tight deadline — with a deal with Edge. If the orchestrators of the deal weren’t expecting a hefty Town contribution, that would have been a well-publicized selling point by now.
This may be a cynical view, but experience suggests that that is usually a good starting point when a deal involves “behind the scenes” discussions.
Thanks for your comment. It seems like many projects in Town get a full head of steam before the public gets any input. Or, worse yet, the public input gets ignored — as in the residents’ obvious ambivalence about the need for a community center as demonstrated in last year’s Comprehensive Plan survey. It doesn’t seem like too much to ask for the public to at least be aware of these discussions BEFORE the plans get to critical decision points.
Thanks again. Please stay informed and involved!
Thank you very much for digging into this. This will be another Taj Mahal (town hall, public safety building, school buildings, etc.) that the citizenry has no approval in the process but to pay higher property taxes on. Getting close to moving away after living here for almost 50 years but social security income is getting clobbered.