The city of Lewiston and economic development agencies have been working for decades to lure new businesses downtown, but now the city may offer incentives to those that want to pack up and leave.

Under a program proposed Monday by City Planner Joel Plaskon, operations that don’t necessarily fit in with planning goals in the downtown waterfront area could get assistance from the city with relocation efforts. It could take the form of certain fee waivers, expedited permit processing and dedicated Community Development staff time that could facilitate a move, he said.

“It’s basically making a statement that if you want to participate in this program, we are committed to helping you in these ways,” Plaskon told the council at Monday’s work session.

Plaskon didn’t identify any businesses by name, other than to mention existing industrial operations that aren’t necessarily compatible with a waterfront plan that focuses on creating a vibrant atmosphere by encouraging pedestrian-friendly development.

The incentive program could also be tailored to incentivize the establishment of businesses that help achieve that goal, he added. If approved, the program would be added to city code as an amendment to existing developer incentive programs the city council enacted over the last few years.

Part of the proposal would expand the area subject to the program beyond the historic downtown area to the east, possibly all the way to 21st Street. The combined areas have historically been home to a wide variety of commercial enterprises, including several industrial operations.

Community Development staff initially conceived of the program as proactive, with city staff establishing criteria, doing research and evaluating conditions before reaching out to businesses that might want to participate. But they soon shifted gears to propose a reactive program where the city would only act on a case-by-case basis when approached by a business that might want to relocate.

Councilors had several questions about the proposal, with John Pernsteiner asking how it would be different from the assistance the Community Development Department would offer to any business looking to make a move. Plaskon said that as drafted, the incentive would compel city staff to use its resources in the relocation effort.

“It’s basically making a statement that if you want to participate in this program, we are committed to helping you in these ways,” Plaskon said.

Councilor John Bradbury wondered about the constitutionality of the proposal, given the broad discretion it would give the city council to choose program applicants.

“If I’m representing someone who wants the incentive and they don’t get it because the council says it’s incompatible, that’s a subjective decision by the council,” Bradbury said. “We’ll pick and choose who the winners and losers are based on our discretion rather than standards that could be identified by someone before they apply.”

City Attorney Jana Gomez responded that the council does have the latitude to make discretionary decisions, as long as there are some “sideboards” to guide those decisions. And Pernsteiner said there are standards in the waterfront plan the council could lean on if it needs to justify a decision.

Plaskon said if those waterfront objectives aren’t specific enough, he could draft others specific to the relocation incentive program. But he pointed out that the waterfront plan already has goals, such as prioritizing nonindustrial land uses that enhance the area’s livability and vitality. Bradbury wasn’t convinced, however.

“I would attack that in a heartbeat for being vague,” he said.

Pernsteiner countered that the incentive would likely only apply to between 10 and 20 businesses and offer only minor incentives, not something like a large tax break.

“No one is going to be gunning for these incentives,” he said. “And this is only if people want to move. This isn’t us kicking anyone out.”

In other business, the council gave its consensus to library Director Lynn Johnson to include specifications for a multipurpose performance stage in the upcoming construction bid package for a project to build a rooftop gallery and performance center. The base project would be paid for with private donations to the Lewiston Library Foundation and cost a little more than $500,000. But the performance stage would add about $270,000 to that cost, and the foundation is working to raise that money.

Johnson said the overall project is needed in part to enhance the library’s ability to host large and popular events. But Bradbury said he would rather see the library spend the money on things like prominent speakers and more books.

Mills may be contacted at jmills@lmtribune.com or (208) 848-2266.

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