The Fairfield Town Council is close to buying one of two properties for a new riverfront park and footbridge across the Kennebec River.
By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling
FAIRFIELD — Sometime in the next few weeks, town leaders hope to buy two properties that will pave the way for a new riverfront park and footbridge between the town and Mill Island.
The small park, near the intersection of Western Avenue and Main Street, would feature picnic tables and a few benches facing the Kennebec River.
The park would be built in one to two years and the footbridge would be completed at least a year after that.
The multi-year project is expected to cost between $320,000 and $380,000, much of which would come from a downtown tax increment financing account, according to Town Manager Josh Reny.
A footbridge had linked the downtown to the island, where about 100 residents once worked at the United Boxboard and Paper Company, but bridge was torn down during World War II and used as scrap metal.
Today, the island is connected to the downtown only by a short bridge running beneath a portion of Bridge Street, which then crosses the island’s southern tip and continues across the river to Benton.
The Town Council has approved the purchase of two properties that have three buildings, a small family home, a four-unit apartment building, and a former convenience store. The properties are both listed for sale by their owners, and the town will not complete the purchase until the renters in the apartment building have relocated to adequate housing, Reny said.
He said he expected the sale would be finalized in late October or early November.
The footbridge would be built on the site of the historical footbridge and would link that site to the island.
The project proposal, which was written by Reny in conjunction with the town’s economic development committee, also included plans for a possible second footbridge that would link Mill Street to the southern tip of the island, and would be a component of a river trail that would extend from either end.
Reny said it is unlikely the second footbridge will be built within the next several years.
According to the proposal, the project would benefit the town by removing the blighted buildings as part of an overall beautification strategy, creating more parking for the downtown area, improving bicycle and pedestrian access, and providing a potential home for the Fairfield Farmers Market at the intersection of Main Street and Western Avenue, which draws a lot of traffic.
Reny said the farmers arket’s current location, in a small church parking lot off Main Street near a railroad overpass, is dangerous because it is in an area where there is low visibility and people tend to speed. He said people involved with the market support moving the market.
He cautioned that it would take a while before the project achieves completion, but said “we need to put the foundation down to get things rolling or else we’ll never get there.”
He also said the cost projections are just rough estimates and subject to changes in pricing.
Since 1996, the town’s long-term planning documents have included establishing a footbridge between the former paper mill site in the Kennebec River and downtown, but Reny said previous efforts have stalled because it was difficult to raise local funding.
Now, said Reny, the town is able to access money raised through the downtown tax district, which was created in 2009 to capture local tax revenues.
The money in the tax district, currently about $180,000, must be spent on investments in the downtown area.
“Now that we have some money to reinvest, not only can we pursue these grants, but we can also put up a local cash match,” said Reny.
The account has financed an incentive to attract a new business, the Family Dollar store, and has also been used to fund a facade improvement program for Main Street property owners.
Reny said he guessed that the town would ultimately spend about half of the total cost of the project, with the remainder coming from grants.
The park and footbridge are part of a larger effort to revitalize Fairfield’s downtown area that has seen the demolition of a few older buildings, the planned repair and closure of a handful of railroad crossings, and the renovation of the historic Gerald Hotel into housing for low-income seniors.
“So long as we continue with the planning process, we can just continue heading in this direction and chipping away at these projects a little at a time,” Reny said.
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287
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