One year in: Wiscasset planner Averill on gains, goals

Posted:  Wednesday, February 15, 2017 - 7:30am

Wiscasset Town Planner Ben Averill took little to no credit for some of the positive local economic signs he cited in an office interview Friday. But he said they are all cause for optimism and he’s glad to be part of helping Wiscasset enter a time of new opportunities.

Averill has been on the job one year Feb. 22. The Wiscasset Newspaper asked him for a temperature read on economic development in town, and what he wants to happen in the next year. From recent movement on lots on the Mason Station peninsula to a hike in building permits, Averill said Wiscasset showed in 2016 it is recovering from the national recession and is poised to benefit from the things he said have long made the town special: its historic aspects and great local shops.

The state’s downtown project is still being tweaked but, whatever the final design, it will put fresh attention on Wiscasset and hopefully ease congestion as the Maine Department of Transportation has planned, he said.

“I really think that regardless of what the final plan looks like, it will give a lot of opportunity to highlight some of the uniqueness of the town (and) how great Wiscasset is ... It really gives us a chance to expand on the ‘prettiest little village’ aspect.’”

Economic activity made gains last year, with nearly 100 percent of downtown storefronts occupied during the tourist season, the Main Street Pier full of vendors and other pier space also rented, Averill said. In addition, throughout town, he cited a strong one-year growth in building permits. Code Enforcement Officer Stan Waltz said 58 were issued in 2015; 92 in 2016.

People are ready to start spending, Averill said about the upturn. “It’s been great to see how the town has been able to rebound economically ... And it seemed like there was just a lot of interest and activity with people just stopping into the town either wanting to set up businesses or really learn about Wiscasset and what a great place it is, and I’m hoping we can continue to tap into that as we go forward.”

The recent sale of the former Wiscasset Primary School, sales of some former Mason Station-Point East lots and requests for hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal cleanup funds for parts of the Mason Station peninsula have been longtime goals for the town and now they’re happening, Averill observed. “(Those are) a lot of big-ticket items, things the town has been working on, and we’re finally getting those balls really moving.”

In 2017, he envisions, and hopes for, continued progress on the peninsula. He described its redevelopment as something that will be very important for the town. He remained optimistic about prospects for winning the cleanup funds this spring; otherwise, the town can apply again in the next round less than a year from now, he said.

Asked about the Wiscasset Area Chamber of Commerce, Averill said it has a good relationship with the town, helped in new ways on town events in 2016 and had a successful first run of the organization’s Wiscasset Holiday Marketplace. “I can see only good things coming forward with the Chamber.”

Averill said he’s had one unique opportunity — getting to work with the Wiscasset Historic Preservation Commission. “They were pretty new ... so it’s been nice to learn with them how the process would go, and work out some of the kinks,” including parts of the preservation ordinance the panel is now looking at tweaking, he said.

Waltz and Averill share an office in the municipal building. Averill works hard, is good at what he does and has a lot of knowledge, Waltz said. “I hope he stays.”

Averill is looking forward to it. The Topsham resident and wife Kelly Averill, a preschool teacher at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, are house-hunting for their first home and are including Wiscasset in the search. “If we found what we were looking for, we would love to live here,” he said.