MOUNT DESERT — How much the town should be paying for economic development initiatives is something the board of selectmen will be deciding as part of budget deliberations for next year.
Jackie Hewitt is in her second year as the town’s economic development consultant. Last year, she was paid $45,462, with half of that coming from the Summer Residents Association (SRA).
For the current year, the SRA has again pledged to pay half of her consulting fee, up to $30,000.
At the selectmen’s request, Hewitt has developed three options for the board to consider for filling the role of economic development coordinator starting next fiscal year.
She said the town could pay a half-time consultant $65 an hour, or $67,600 a year, plus marketing and other expenses for a total of $92,100.
Another option, she said, is to create a half-time town staff position that pays $35,000. Benefits and other expenses would bring the total first-year cost to $64,730.
Hewitt estimated that if the town wants to create a full-time economic development position with a salary of $60,000, the total cost would be $124,900.
Town Manager Durlin Lunt said he would be working on next year’s budget over the next few weeks and would need the selectmen’s guidance on budgeting for economic development by early January.
Selectman Tom Richardson said he strongly opposes creating a staff position for economic development. He expressed skepticism that initiatives already taken or being considered would have much effect.
“Who is prepared to tell me that this is really making a difference to the economic development of this town?” he asked. “This village (Northeast Harbor) did well on its own for a long time until two key elements: the downgrade in the year-round population and the value of property, which has gone sky high.”
He suggested that those two factors would be difficult to overcome.
“Unless we are willing to change Northeast Harbor into something they don’t want to be, which is Bar Harbor, to attract the numbers of people here … I just can’t see where we’re going,” he said.
Other members of the board of selectmen said change can’t be expected to happen overnight.
“I’m not expecting to see incredible change after a year,” board chairman John Macauley said. “What I have seen after a year is a change in the attitude and the vision for what we can do around here. It may not work, but we don’t know now.”
Selectman Martha Dudman noted that a new building is going up on Main Street that is to have a soda fountain on the ground floor and shared office space for rent above.
“I think there are some rays of light,” she said. “I think if we turn our backs on this effort now, we will regret it.”
Richardson said he wasn’t suggesting that the board turn its back on economic development. “I just don’t want to create a new town department,” he said.
Hewitt said that to promote economic development, Mount Desert needs to “integrate more” into the rest of the island.
“It is a tourism-based island; that really is what is supporting most of the businesses,” she said. “I know you don’t want to be Bar Harbor, but you’ve got to be a little bit more than what you are.”
Hewitt and the selectmen agreed that in addition to promoting economic development, the town needs to find a way to increase the availability of affordable housing for working families.
“That really is the elephant in the room,” Hewitt said.