AUGUSTA — City councilors working on next year’s budget sparred recently over whether the city does enough for economic development compared to other area communities.

At-large Councilor Dale McCormick said the Office of Economic and Community Development’s goals and objectives aren’t ambitious enough.

“I just find the goals and objectives thin and the accomplishments few,” McCormick said during budget deliberations late Thursday. “When I look at Gardiner and what they’re being able to do, and Waterville and what they’re doing — and I understand they have Colby College — I think we’re lacking in this category. Never has so little been done with so much, economic developmentwise.”

Other city councilors, Mayor David Rollins, and City Manager William Bridgeo disputed that statement and said Augusta has seen major economic development, more than most other communities, over the last several years.

They cited developments and expansions in Augusta in recent years including the construction of a new regional MaineGeneral Medical Center, past and planned expansions at J.S. McCarthy Printers, a renovated and significantly expanded Lithgow Public Library, new office buildings at the Central Maine Commerce Center, and a planned expansion at Performance Foodservice — Northcenter’s food distribution operation at 20 Dalton Road, off Riverside Drive.

In addition, they mentioned the $32 million, 100,000-square-foot new Maine National Guard headquarters now under construction off Civic Center Drive, the Bangor Savings Bank facility on Western Avenue, and new hotels including one now under construction on Western Avenue, as examples that show Augusta has more, not less, economic development than neighboring cities.

“I know we had Emery’s (Meat & Produce) move to Gardiner, but we had Bangor Savings Bank move to Augusta, we’ve had hotels move to Augusta recently. We’ve had significant economic development in Augusta,” said at-large Councilor Jeffrey Bilodeau. “Just one of those projects way outweigh the economic development that happened in downtown Gardiner. We’re talking millions of dollars of economic development going on.”

Bridgeo defended the economic development efforts of the city staff.

“To your comment, Councilor (McCormick), that we compare unfavorably to other communities with regard to what we’re able to achieve in the area of community and economic development, I’d take issue with that statement,” Bridgeo said. “I think the people in the employ of the city of Augusta that do that work are tremendously professional, very capable, work very hard and achieve significant results. I’d be happy to take a little time and chronicle those results, but I think it is important I stand up for these people because I know how hard they work and I know the accomplishments they achieve and I think you are doing them a disservice when you characterize them the way you just did.”

McCormick said she did not say city staff aren’t working hard enough and that she thinks they do a good job. She said when she compares Augusta to nearby communities, she merely thinks it comes up lacking in economic development.

“I asked questions and pointed out a lack I saw, which I think is my job,” McCormick said. “And I was accused of being disloyal to people who I care a lot about and who I think do a good job. Somehow I don’t think that creates an atmosphere conducive to coming up with a good, vibrant budget or coming up with a more active role for the City Council in economic development. And I hope we can move forward in this budget process without defensiveness and with council being able to ask hard questions.”

Ward 2 Councilor Darek Grant said business owners he’s talked to in Augusta always praise the city staff for being supportive in helping them expand or relocate in the city.

He said if the city is missing out on economic development opportunities, such as losing Emery’s, which moved in January 2015 from Augusta to Gardiner, the blame should fall on the council for not providing the tools to lure businesses or prevent them from leaving for other cities.

He noted Emery’s was drawn to Gardiner at least in part by an incentive package of around $40,000 through a collaborative program involving the Gardiner Board of Trade, Gardiner Main Street, the Bank of Maine and the city of Gardiner.

“I’ve complained about Gardiner taking Emery’s meat market and going after other businesses in our city, but they have city funds, and other funds, they’re using to bring those businesses there,” Grant said. “I don’t know if Augusta wants to do that. I think that’s a race to the bottom when you get going in that direction.”

Bridgeo, in his budget proposal councilors are currently reviewing, proposed an economic development budget of $261,000 for next year, a $8,560, or 3.4 percent, increase.

Goals and objectives for the coming year for the city’s Office of Economic and Community Development are to continue to meet with Augusta businesses on a regular basis to assess their needs and assist whenever possible; facilitate and manage the city’s tax increment financing program and effectively utilize the program to promote city goals; continue to implement the downtown redevelopment plan as specified by the City Council; address downtown signage issues and update parking regulations to meet commercial and residential needs; and promote the redevelopment of the city-owned Kennebec Locke site, which is the former location of the now-demolished Statler Tissue mill.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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