Municipal TIF agreements, Low-Income Housing Tax Credit Program not to be feared

Fri, 05/21/2021 - 3:30pm

Even decades ago, when I was just in grade school and a trip the Smiling Cow in Camden was an exhilarating adventure, I knew the town was someplace special.

I grew up spending my summers in Port Clyde, and every week my parents would pile us into the car for the exciting pilgrimage to Camden. A movie at the Bay View Cinema was always a must, as was dinner at Peter Ott’s, where we could watch the Appledore leave the harbor for a sunset cruise. With coins rattling in my pocket from the previous week’s lawn mowing engagements, I always felt while walking around downtown Camden that, as the saying goes, the world was my oyster.

So, it was with nostalgia that in recent months I was able to return to the town and participate in a process designed to reclaim a blighted area, and transform it into a revitalized asset of which all Camden citizens will be proud.

As the CEO of Northland Enterprises, a commercial real estate development company, I partnered with Andy Jackson of Dovetail Consultants to submit one of four proposals that the Select Board reviewed for revitalizing the site of the former Apollo Tannery at 116 Washington Street.

We knew that the town had identified the lack of affordable and workforce housing as a severe crisis, and we knew that with our specialized skill set we could lend a hand. Our proposal included about 35 workforce apartments.

The Select Board instead chose a proposal that will build 10 or so units of housing. Is this a defeat for Camden? Quite the contrary. We are thrilled to see the town move forward, precisely because it is indeed moving forward.

Cranesport LLC and developer Michael Mullins submitted an imaginary plan that will include the apartments, plus workshop spaces for workers and artists, a central barn and event center and a public plaza for the farmer’s market.

By any measure, this will be a fantastic addition to the community fabric of this famous Maine town. Cranesport has Northland’s professional respect and admiration for a job well done.

One word of caution. In the recent process some folks, in pushing for their personally preferred “winner” in the Apollo Tannery competition, were liberal in their disparagement of TIF agreements (Tax Increment Financing) in general.

In doing so, they played right into the general misunderstanding of what a TIF agreement actually accomplishes.

In contrast during the deliberations, Camden’s town manager Audra Caler properly and articulately explained the smart use of TIF agreements as the effective economic development tools they can be. Her clarifications contributed in a positive way to the decision-making process.

Camden’s housing crunch, and indeed the housing crunch throughout Maine, is far from over and no shows signs of abating. The news media has reported that 30,000 Maine people are on the state’s waiting list for affordable housing. That is shocking. Legislators in Augusta are putting forth a flurry of studies and initiatives, and the crisis is a top concern in municipalities all across Maine.

With the median price of a house in Camden at $429,000, it is crystal clear that the area needs a lot more workforce housing.

The technical definition of workforce housing is a household earning between 60% and 100% of the Area Median Income (AMI), with specific limits to rent increases. The practical definition of workforce housing is that the hardworking people who make the economy hum in Camden-Rockport and in the entire Midcoast region need a place to call home at night, a place they can afford.

The Northland/Dovetail team remains very proud of the proposal we made, and the collaborative approach we established with town staff, as we worked together to help ease what has been described as a severe community crisis. Dialogue at all times was thorough, respectful and thoughtful, a true model of what professional collaboration is all about. In the end, Michal Mullins will no doubt build a project that Camden loves. The bigger victory is the town moved forward, and will add 10 or so housing apartments to the housing stock that it didn’t have before.

In conclusion, tools like municipal TIF agreements and Low-Income Housing Tax Credit Program offered by the Maine State Housing Authority are not to be feared. We recommend their consideration.

Intelligent discussion of these tools, as recently exhibited by the Camden Select Board and the town manager, is the best way forward not only for the working people of Camden, but for the people who benefit from that work. 

Josh Benthien lives in Cape Elizabeth, and is a Partner and CEO of Northland Enterprises, based in Portland.