Authority running FirstPark business center rejects Rome’s request to withdraw membership

The entrance to FirstPark is located off Kennedy Memorial Drive in Auckland and was revealed in 2020. The 24 towns in the region are part of a partnership that has funded FirstPark’s operations over the years. One of those towns, Rome, has sought to withdraw from the partnership. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel Archives

The Kennebec Regional Development Authority on Thursday rejected Rome’s request to withdraw from the group, so the town remains obligated to continue paying annual assessments to the authority and its affiliate, Oakland’s FirstPark Business Centre.

If the body’s governing body (ie the General Assembly) allows member towns to withdraw, certain criteria must be met, one of which is that FirstPark must first be able to operate in the absence of members from member towns. This is not currently the case.

In the 2021-2022 fiscal year, FirstPark would not be able to generate enough revenue to cover its operating costs without the contributions of the 24 member towns in central Maine.

As a result, the General Assembly decided to reject Rome’s attempt to withdraw.

But the town was given the impression that it had met the criteria to leave — including that a town’s residents must vote to leave, as Rome did in June 2021.

“I feel as a town we’ve been grossly misled,” Andy Cook, Rome’s representative to the agency, said after Thursday’s meeting. “If we follow the explanations put forward (Thursday) … we can never get out.”

The town had sent a letter to authorities in September announcing its intention to leave.

“It’s kind of a black hole for the town’s funding,” Rome’s first elector, Paul Anderson, said previously.

The agency and FirstPark were founded in 1997, and records show Rome has paid $554,660 in assessment fees since then.

Other towns with similar populations to Rome, such as Smithfield and Solon, paid much less—$211,959 and $163,408, respectively.

The agency does share revenue with member towns each year, and Rome received a $20,428 refund in June.

Cook said the authority’s treasurer, James Jurdak, had previously told him that FirstPark had been able to “break even” and turn a profit, with $56,535 in operating income at the end of the year. In his view, this means that all outstanding debts have been settled.

But without ongoing assessments by member towns — which totaled $395,000 this year — they would have lost $338,465 in the last fiscal year, authority officials said Thursday.

FirstPark sold four parcels of land in the last financial year and discussed whether the economic benefits of those sales to business parks could be considered part of the authority’s operating income. But the analysis done by the auditors determined that should not be the case.

Assembly President Michelle Flewelling, also Mayor of the Town of Fairfield, said she was willing to revisit Rome’s departure after the 2022-2023 fiscal year and hoped that FirstPark would eventually be independent of from member towns.

“If we continue to sell a lot, we may get there sooner,” Flewelling said Thursday. Two parcels of land in the business park were sold to Cincinnati-based Meyer Tools in November.

Rome said in its September letter that it would “refuse to pay” any further assessments. That means any revenue the town will receive from FirstPark will be withheld until the assessment is paid, Flewelling said.

Disappointment was expressed on Thursday at the ongoing rift between Rome and the authorities.

“I believe with all my heart that we should let go of Rome,” said Triberry, Gardner’s representative in the authority. “It’s like a nasty divorce. The only people who win in the long run are the lawyers.”

Benton’s representative, Dwight Lanning, agreed. “If we don’t sell a lot of properties, it looks like we’re going to be riding Rome’s tailwind.”

Some delegates discussed amending the authority’s bylaws to allow Rome to leave, even if FirstPark is not yet financially self-sufficient. One member even suggested having Rome sue the authorities, which Flewellyn said Friday she didn’t think was a good idea.

Flewelling said the legislative process to amend the charter would require the approval of all 24 member cities, and Rome needed to start such a process immediately.

“We have to play by (the rules), and if we want the rules to be different, the rules need to change,” Flewelling said.

Cook said Rome was unlikely to initiate any legal proceedings.

“The town is not interested in litigation or creating tension,” he said Friday. “The town just wants to withdraw and believes it has withdrawn.”

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