OAKLAND — At a meeting of the FirstPark governing body recently, a representative from Gardiner said the organization should combine its staff with that of another economic development organization as a way to save money in a poor economy.

Nate Rudy, Gardiner’s director of economic and community development, was the only member of the Kennebec Regional Development Authority’s general assembly Thursday night to vote against the organization’s $933,706 2013-14 budget.

He said he was “a little concerned about the size of the budget,” which he said doesn’t reflect the struggles that FirstPark’s municipal members are facing. 

“I feel like there are some efficiencies and cost savings that could be realized here,” Rudy said. “I’m a little troubled by that, especially in light of the budget cuts that the people of Gardiner face this year.” 

The park’s performance over the past decade has been good enough to maintain support and optimism from its champions, but sluggish enough to draw criticism from some of the 24 member communities that pay a total of $587,000 each year into the entity.

Craig Nelson, president of the development authority, said the membership fees have remained flat for the past several years.

The park, which was built in 2001, has a 20-year goal of attracting a workforce of 3,000 employees. 

The park has 18 of 24 buildable lots open. It hosts about 20 businesses that employ a total of about 1,000 employees, most of whom work at its largest employer, a T-Mobile call center.

Specifically, Rudy targeted the salary of the FirstPark executive director, a position that has been vacant since November and is scheduled to be filled by new hire Brad Jackson on March 7.

Jackson’s budgeted salary is $75,000 and, when combined with benefits, will cost FirstPark $92,400 per year.

FirstPark treasurer James Jurdak said having Jackson in the executive director position, which is the organization’s only paid position, is one of the keys to FirstPark’s success in the upcoming year.

“We’re all hopeful that as the economy picks up and as the new director comes on board and new individuals get hired in our communities and around the area, that we’ll have hopefully more action,” Jurdak told the assembly. 

However, Rudy said the executive director position could be combined with an existing position at the Kennebec Valley Council of Governments, which does similar economic development work for about 50 member towns in the Kennebec Valley. 

Of the 24 communities represented in FirstPark, 22 — all except St. Albans and Sidney — are also members of the council.

Rudy isn’t the first to suggest that FirstPark doesn’t need a full-time director devoted exclusively to the post. The idea has been floating around for a while, and it was revisited recently by both the executive committee and the general assembly, Nelson said.

In November, shortly after Diana Rafuse announced her resignation as FirstPark director, the managers of Fairfield, Oakland, Waterville, and Winslow sent a joint letter to Nelson asking that FirstPark’s executive committee consider combining the position with that of another local agency.

“As municipal officials, it is imperative that we closely examine the costs and the benefits of improved collaboration,” they wrote.

In January, Waterville City Manager Mike Roy sent Nelson another letter, in which he suggested that the position be combined with that of the executive director of the Central Maine Growth Council.

He wrote that the organizations duplicate services, “which is unnecessary in a region as small as ours.” Roy said the organization could save $35,000 or $50,000 with a shared office.

Roy credited the idea to Rafuse’s resignation letter, in which she said “there are some efficiencies of scale to be gained by considering a collaborative option” with the growth council. Rafuse’s proposal included provisions for hiring support staff at both organizations to help with the workload.

“It was not an idea that we suddenly dreamed up,” Roy wrote in the letter. Roy would not comment for this story.

Fairfield Town Manager Josh Reny said he still thinks adding FirstPark’s executive director duties to the growth council is a good idea. 

He said the idea was given due consideration during a meeting of FirstPark’s executive committee, but that it was not approved.

“It was closely divided, but the majority opinion was to continue the status quo,” he said.

Nelson said that the decision to maintain a full-time executive director was affirmed “several times recently” by the general assembly and by the executive committee at FirstPark.

“In order to move ahead with our mission to create jobs as confirmed in the strategic plan adopted one and a half years ago, we clearly need the full-time efforts of a professional with the economic development experience to get the job done,” he said. 

Nelson said that keeping a full-time director is the only way to fulfill a duty to the member towns and make sure that the organization’s goals are accomplished. 

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287
[email protected]

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