Franklin County approves $235,000 in grants from TIF funds for projects, economic development

FARMINGTON — Franklin County commissioners voted 2-1 Tuesday to support the recommendations of the county’s Tax-Increment Financing Advisory Committee to award $235,000 in grants to fund three projects as well as Greater Franklin Economic and Community Development.

The committee reviews all grant applications and scores them. The recommended projects go to commissioners for review and possible approval.

The grant money comes from a tax-increment financing agreement with Helix Generation LLC, an affiliate of LS Power Equity Advisors. It was initially made in 2008 between TransCanada Maine Wind Development Inc. in relation with a 44-turbine wind energy facility in northern Franklin County, which is now owned by Helix. Since then the TIF has been amended four times.

Greater Franklin requested $120,000 from the TIF. It received $120,000 last year as well. The funding for the organization has been contentious in the past, though Commissioner Clyde Barker of Strong has routinely supported it.

Commissioner Chairman Terry Brann of Wilton, along with a previous commissioner, had not been in favor of funding the entity, nor other nonprofit social service agencies, and had eliminated funding.

Brann said he opposed Greater Franklin’s request. He would agree to $60,000, which was previously granted in years leading up to 2017, but not $120,000. Commissioner Lance Harvell of Farmington said he and Brann had previously agreed in principal on the $60,000. Brann said he has not seen much happening with Greater Franklin and doesn’t know of any new jobs brought in. He also noted that commissioners have not had quarterly visits or reports from Charlie Woodworth, executive director of Greater Franklin.

Woodworth said Wednesday he sends updates to the county. Brann indicated he had not received any of the updates and checks his emails frequently.

Barker said he is in support of Greater Franklin’s request. Many counties have economic development organizations, he said, Franklin County needs one.

Woodworth is one of two administrators of the TIF funds and works with the TIF committee. Neither administrator votes on projects.

Bob Carlton of Freeman Township who is on the committee, said the members go over applications for the grants with a “fine tooth comb,” and analyze, make adjustments and ask questions of submitters before a recommendation is made to commissioners. Members thoroughly went over Greater Franklin’s application, he said.

“We rode Charlie pretty hard,” he said. He asked commissioners to support the committee’s recommendations.

The development group has raised a match of $60,674 to get the TIF funds, Woodworth said. He pointed out that Franklin County does not have enough people to fill current job postings.

He added that the organization has been working hard to connect the entire county to reliable, high-speed broadband so every citizen can participate in the 21st century economy. By the end of 2023, 12,000 addresses in 13 towns will be upgraded to a fiber-to-home network. The work represents $34 million of fiber infrastructure investment in Franklin County, he said.

“This is not like building a road that will need to be repaved in eight years,” he said. “This investment will pay compounding benefits and interest day over day.”

“The high-speed internet will allow the region to grow and compete with the rest of New England,” Woodworth said.

Brann also said they hired new county Administrator Amy Bernard who has economic development expertise.

“This gives us a year for Amy and I to figure out how to be most efficient and most effective working on behalf of the county,” Woodworth said.

Brann said he did support the other three projects the committee recommended.

The grants approved include $50,000 to help expand Bigelow Fields, a family-owned bison ranch in Lang Township that has other offerings. It is contingent on the business raising a match of $50,000 or more. A $30,000 grant was approved for a High Peaks initiative to take inventory of recreation assets. The other grant for $35,000 will go to Rangeley Lakes Heritage Trust to make public access improvements to its recently acquired 1,731 acres Kennebago Headwaters property.

Though the TIF primarily is for the unorganized territory, the Legislature approved a change to the county’s TIF program in 2019 that allowed economic development funds in the TIF to be used countywide for costs associated to broadband and fiber optic expansion projects.

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