GARDINER — At a packed house earlier this month at the Johnson Hall Performing Arts Center, Gardiner residents bid one mayor farewell and greeted the new one as all of Gardiner officials elected in November were sworn in.

In this time of transition, Thom Harnett, elected to the District 83 seat in Maine House of Representatives, and Patricia Hart, the District 2 city councilor who was elected mayor, are reflecting on Gardiner, the progress that it has made and the work ahead.

Gardiner Mayor Patricia Hart checks a text Thursday from the new office of her economic consulting business, located on Water Street in Gardiner. She moved to the suite after her old office was destroyed in a fire earlier this month. Hart started her term as mayor in early January. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

“I think it’s the best job I ever had,” said Harnett, who served three terms as mayor. “I thoroughly enjoyed it.”

In his time as mayor, Harnett said, he has seen a high level of community engagement and volunteerism throughout the city, and not just from civic groups such as Rotary or the American Legion.

Last summer, thousands of people came to Gardiner to see the Wall that Heals, a traveling replica of the Washington, D.C., memorial to those killed during the Vietnam War; and scores of volunteers contributed their time to staff it around the clock.

The arrival of the wall only weeks after the Great Race, a competitive controlled-speed endurance road rally on public highways for antique, vintage and collector cars came through the city, drawing thousands of spectators. Again, scores of volunteers stepped up to make the celebration a success, he said.

“It happens all the time,” Harnett said. “Every event we have, whether it’s Swine and Stein or the Waterfront Concerts, we never have a problem getting people to help out, and Gardiner Main Street is a big part of that.”

Hart said people, both in Gardiner and in other places, note that the city is a community that comes to together to support its events.

“I think people see that and want to be a part of that,” she said.

Over the last several years, Gardiner has been successful in attracting businesses to the Libby Hill Business Park, its downtown neighborhood and elsewhere.

“We have made a major push to revitalize downtown,” Harnett said. “And we have had successes and failures along the way. It’s not as simple as ‘build it and they will come.’

“Businesses have started up and didn’t succeed,” he added. “It’s hard to see that sort of up and down, but we’re still trending in the right direction.”

Notable among those that didn’t find success, Central Maine Meats, which had secured more than $1 million in state and federal economic development and workforce development funds, filed for bankruptcy protection last April.

Gardiner Mayor Patricia Hart meets with developer Roger Bintliff on Thursday in one of three buildings he recently purchased on Water Street in Gardiner. Bintliff said he plans to open a coffee shop, a restaurant and, hopefully, a brewery in the 19th-century structures along the Kennebec River. Hart started her term in early January. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

Hart said she’s looking forward to city officials continuing to work on putting the elements of Gardiner’s Comprehensive Plan and activities identified in the Heart & Soul community planning process in place.

“One of our first items of business in January will be accepting the Land Use Ordinance changes that will codify the work that was done on the Comprehensive Plan,” she said.

The plan’s two main goals are increasing the city’s population and strengthening its tax base.

“I am looking forward to seeing that implemented,” she said.

Hart said people have been waiting for those plans to take shape to launch their own projects.

At the same time, city officials will have to work out how to regulate the state’s emerging marijuana market within Gardiner.

“There’s no end and no magic launch,” Hart said. “There are some projects that will be able to move forward, and they will be able to do what they want to do in a way that the community wants the city’s growth to happen.”

The biggest challenge Gardiner has faced and continues to face is the 60 percent reduction in revenue sharing from the state of Maine, Harnett said.

“It’s hard to retain the services the residents need and want for the taxes they have to pay,” he said.

Harnett said he plans to work as hard as he can to restore revenue sharing to the full 5 percent spelled out in state law, retroactive to Jan. 1 of this year.

“I don’t know if that will succeed,” he said. “But it will help Gardiner, help municipalities and help senior citizens who are on fixed incomes who have to make decisions about whether they spend money on heating, eating or medication, and that’s wrong.”

As Hart looks ahead, the status of revenue sharing is only one of her concerns about the upcoming budget cycle.

Gardiner Mayor Patricia Hart meets with developer Roger Bintliff on Thursday in one of three buildings he recently purchased on Water Street in Gardiner. Bintliff said he plans to open a coffee shop, a restaurant and, hopefully, a brewery in the 19th-century structures along the Kennebec River. Hart started her term in early January. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

Gardiner officials have been notified that the state’s regional communication center no longer will provide dispatching services for the city’s police, fire and ambulance departments starting July 1; and finding an alternative could prove costly, perhaps more than double what city officials currently are paying.

“I hope we can get that solved,” Hart said. “It will be a big pressure on the budget.”

Hart said a Heart and Soul project Part 2 is being contemplated to build on the values established during the community assessment and outreach project. Those values include family-friendliness, education, a strong local economy and livability.

“We want to reconvene the community and celebrate the progress that we’ve made and see if we can start some new projects,” she said.

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

[email protected]

Twitter: @JLowellKJ

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