Two decades on capital’s hot seat

Maine municipal government is unusual in vesting primary authority not in elected mayors or councils, but in professional managers. So the top job in most cities, including Augusta, involves a fair amount of political skill as well as the expected administrative expertise and management ability.

Bill Bridgeo, who auditioned for the Augusta city manager job during the January 1998 ice storm, has now held this highly visible position for two decades, and shows no sign of slowing down.

In two recent interviews, he made it clear it wasn’t smooth sailing at first. A native of Aroostook County, Bridgeo served nearly 10 years as city manager in Calais before moving to Canandaigua, New York. The Empire State has strong and well-funded city governments, and Bridgeo and his family had “a very good life” he wasn’t willing to give up without a new challenge — and a good contract.

Maine’s capital provided the challenge, and the council approved the contract, which initially excited a lot of comment. Since the state government shutdown of 1991, the city of Augusta had been in austerity mode. His predecessor was dismissed, a fate earlier city managers also suffered.

Bridgeo made it clear he believes a city gets what it pays for, and ensured that the neglect and cutbacks would end. Even so, he was stunned after taking a ride in a plow truck with holes in the ceiling and the floor. The entire city fleet averaged 19 years, and vehicles were literally falling apart. Today, the average is nine years.

Employee morale was equally low, and an economic development director who’d been instrumental in the previous manager’s departure didn’t welcome direction from Bridgeo either. The director was eased out, and Bridgeo hired his own team.

After being shown the city’s economic development efforts — a tour that conspicuously bypassed Water Street — and being told downtown was “a writeoff,” Bridgeo knew he had to change course. “No city can thrive without a vibrant downtown,” he said.

Twenty years later, downtown shows signs of returning to its former prominence. A half dozen pubs and restaurants are open, and incentives from the city are bringing in new service and retail businesses.

The key, Bridgeo said, is the redevelopment of Water Street’s upper floors into market rate apartments, renting for $1,200 to $2,000 a month. They’re being snapped up by professionals and retirees, providing a base for the business growth. Even well beyond Portland, the New Urbanism seems to be taking hold.

Bridgeo hasn’t shied away from going out on a limb. The old Cony Flatiron building remained vacant, but heated, because the community insisted it be reused — not for the performing arts center many envisioned, but as senior housing, converted by the same developer who restored the old city hall, another structure many insisted was finished.

On his watch, the city has seen construction of a new YMCA on formerly city-owned land, a state-of-the-art high school, the new judicial center, and a new state highway garage and a replacement office building under construction on Capitol Street.

There have been disappointments. The state-selected developer of the old Kennebec Arsenal property has done nothing to bring it back. Removal of the Edwards Dam hasn’t led to the sport fishing boom some thought it would spawn, nor has the third bridge over the Kennebec River carrying Route 3 prompted new development on the east side.

Yet Augusta has added large amounts of taxable retail, commercial and residential property over the last two decades, has dramatically upgraded its infrastructure, and, Bridgeo said, its roads and streets “are in the best shape they’ve ever been.”

While Bridgeo is nearing traditional retirement age, he hasn’t cut back his goals, which include revitalization of aging housing stock, reopening the Colonial Theater downtown, adding student housing to the University of Maine at Augusta campus, and “fewer daunting fiscal challenges for our school department.” Bridgeo notes that, had the state not cut municipal revenue sharing 60%, Augusta wouldn’t have had any property tax increases over the past eight years.

Relations with state government have varied. There’s been “great cooperation” on infrastructure with the Department of Transportation, Bridgeo said, but a complete lack of it from the Department of Health and Human Services over issues such as general assistance and refugees. One senses he’s considering what a change of administration in 2019 will bring.

Bridgeo seems to remember every conversation he’s had with a city councilor, and what happened at every council meeting. If he has a secret to success, it’s keeping closely in touch both with those who employ him, and with the residents he serves.

Douglas Rooks has covered the State House for 33 years. His biography, “Statesman: George Mitchell and the Art of the Possible,” is now available. Comment is welcomed at: [email protected]

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