‘Back to basics’ for Portsmouth economic panel

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PORTSMOUTH — A revitalized town panel’s ideas for bringing in new business here include attracting a big-name hotel, consideration of an entertainment or sports facility located at the former landfill and creating an entity like Shelburne Farm in Vermont.

thsignThe bold ideas came out of the Portsmouth Economic Development Committee’s (PDEC) annual report presented to the Town Council Monday night.

Ray Berberick, PDEC chairman, told the council that the committee, which has new membership and leadership since January 2013, is taking a “back to basics” approach that emphasizes “closing the gap” — finding additional revenue for the town.

He also said the committee wants to engage the council and the town in general on the revenue side to lower taxes.

“We ask you to make economic development job one going forward using the bully pulpit,” said Mr. Berberick.

Among the new initiatives undertaken by the PDEC is that the Town Council and Town Administrator John Klimm considering forming an Economic Council to exchange key information on economic development across several boards and committees. The Economic Council would education local residents on the provisions of the updated town Comprehensive Community Plan, and also use various media to get the word across “that the town has changed and is now business friendly,” the report reads.

Council President James Seveney said he “would like to see some metrics” on how the town is progressing in attracting new business to lower the tax burden on local residents. He said the right mixture of recreational and commercial development seems to be the key to real tax relief.

Mr. Berberick agreed, but said the town has its work cut out for itself. “We’d have to have a whole other Carnegie development to wander into town to get rid of that 2 percent” tax increase, he said. “Moving the needle is going to be quite a challenge.”

Wording of agenda item questioned

Council members were preparing to vote on endorsing the PDEC’s vision going forward when Town Solicitor Kevin Gavin interrupted them to advise against it. The meeting’s agenda, he explained, didn’t indicate that the council would take any action on the report.

Mr. Gavin mentioned that Judi Staven was in the audience and that while he didn’t want the council “to walk on eggshells,” it should err on the side of caution when it came to the Open Meetings Act.

Ms. Staven, a former council member, filed an Open Meetings Act complaint against the current council last fall, alleging that an Oct. 15, 2013 agenda item, “Prudence Island Ferry Update,” did not adequately inform the public of the nature of the business to be discussed. In February, the state attorney general’s office ruled in Ms. Staven’s favor.

(Another resident, John Vitkevich, recently won a similar ruling against the council, regarding an improperly posted agenda item about the former Elmhurst School chapel on Oct. 29, 2013.)

The council then voted unanimously to simply receive the PEDC report and place it on the next council agenda for discussion and vote.

Ms. Staven took exception to the solicitor’s mentioning of her name.

“I would certainly hope that just the fact that I was here wasn’t the reason he spoke up about the Open Meetings Act,” she told the council. “It needs to be on the agenda if you’re going to vote on it.”

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