RICHMOND — When Darryl Sterling was hired by the town nearly 11 years ago, the former Etonic shoe plant at the head of the downtown was empty, the downtown had one restaurant, the closest thing to a public bathroom was a Porta-Potty on the waterfront and job seekers seemed to have only a few options within Richmond’s borders.

While he certainly can’t and doesn’t claim to be responsible for all the changes, Richmond is a different place now as Sterling leaves his Richmond post as one of two part-time economic development workers for a similar job with a regional development group in the Waterville area.

The former Etonic plant, redubbed the Richmond Business and Manufacturing Center, houses multiple established businesses; the mainstay Railway Cafe has been joined by other downtown eateries, including the Old Goat, Baker’s Restaurant and Annabella’s Bakery & Cafe; relief can be found in a waterfront bathroom complete with a rooftop observation deck; and Sterling said there are 500 more jobs in town now than when he started.

By investing about $2 million of local money into economic development — most of it captured from a natural gas pipeline compressor station operating within a specially created special tax district — Sterling said Richmond has brought in some $5 million in grant funding from the state and federal government, and $15 million to $20 million in private investment over his 11 years.

“Over the last 10 years, we’ve probably netted 500 jobs, including (Richmond Business and Manufacturing Center tenant) Hodgdon Yachts, Newman Concrete Services and all the jobs they’ve brought, as well as Dunkin’ Donuts and Subway, downtown businesses, Microtech, and smaller specialty businesses,” Sterling said recently during his last day on the job. He also cited infrastructure improvements, such as the waterfront park, Lane Field and new sidewalks.

“I’d say what I’m most proud of is seeing the town become revitalized and energized. As a resident, I’m proud we have all this nice, walkable infrastructure. On the economic side of things, I’m really happy with the downtown revitalization,” he said.

As Sterling departs, town officials are left to contemplate whether to fill his position, which became a full-time job in 2002 when the other part-time development worker for the town, Dave Tilton, left the job.

Officials say it’s not that they don’t appreciate Sterling’s achievements.

But some aren’t sure the town still needs a full-time economic development director. Some note there is only so much grant money to go around, and Richmond already got a sizable chunk of it during Sterling’s tenure.

The most recent large grant the town received was $500,000 in Community Development Block Grant funding through the state Department of Economic and Community Development — the second such grant for the town in the last three years.

Grant rules state towns can only get CDBG funding for a maximum of two projects over five years.

“Darryl was such an asset to the town,” said Tracy Tuttle, chairwoman of the Board of Selectmen. “But we’re pretty much at our cap for what we could get for grants, so we may have to be stepping back, to let other folks have a turn at some money. We’re going to step back and see where we are.”

Selectmen and Town Manager Marian Anderson did include about $45,000 in the town budget for the coming year to fund Sterling’s position, which was approved by voters at Town Meeting last month.

Sterling said he hopes the town will fill the economic development director’s job he’s leaving, at least part time.

“I think it should be continued, to keep the momentum going with the work we’ve done to improve Richmond’s quality of life,” said Sterling, who will remain a resident.

Sterling said he’s leaving for a new job to advance his career. He’ll become executive director of the Central Maine Growth Council, an organization founded in 2001 to attract businesses to Waterville, Winslow, Oakland and Fairfield. The council also helps local companies retain jobs and expand in the region. Its office is in Waterville.

In 2000, Richmond created a special tax increment financing, or TIF, district around the then-relatively new Maritimes and Northeast natural gas compressor station, and dedicated revenues collected from the TIF to economic development, for 20 years.

Resident Jay Robbins Jr., town manager from 1999 to 2003, noted some of that money has helped pay the economic and community development director’s salary. So, he said, it would make sense for the town to keep such a position, at least part-time.

Robbins said Sterling has been good for Richmond.

“In terms of what we put into it and what we got out of it, we’re on the plus side of the equation,” Robbins said of using TIF money to create Sterling’s position and spur economic development.

Robbins said the infrastructure improvements Sterling helped bring have made Richmond a more attractive town.

And having business activity and jobs in the former Etonic plant is also significant, especially given the sprawling building’s prominence as one of the first buildings motorists see on the main route into town, Route 197.

While the town did spend some local money on the former Etonic building, which it bought for $550,000 and later resold to a private developer for $350,000, much of the improvements to it to attract business tenants were paid for with state and federal grant funds.

“I don’t think the town had much money into that building, out of its own pocket, that it didn’t recover,” Robbins said. “There’s someone in the building now, which you can’t say about a lot of other industrial buildings these days. If it was vacant, it would paint a whole different picture of town.”

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]


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