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December 14, 2021

Report: Workforce housing, transportation key to hiring, retaining workers

Courtesy / SMPDC Attracting workers at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, shown here across the water, requires workforce housing and transportation options.

Workforce housing and better transportation options will be key to attracting and retaining workers in southern Maine, according to a new report by the Southern Maine Planning and Development Commission and the New England District Council of the Urban Land Institute.

The report, which aimed to address housing affordability in Berwick, Kittery and the surrounding region, outlined ways for communities to develop new and diverse housing stock to address the lack of affordable workforce housing for those who want to live closer to their place of work, particularly the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.  
”Housing is of critical importance to our region’s economy and is one of the greatest challenges for local employers in southern Maine. It’s increasingly difficult to recruit or retain workers with home prices at historic highs,” said Paul Schumacher, executive director of Southern Maine Planning and Development Commission. 
The commission is looking at commuting patterns, costs of transportation and land use "to develop strategies and tools for our towns,” Schumacher said. "But we need to see more collaboration with state and federal partners in the future."

The panelists analyzed a proposed Berwick mixed-use development site and offered specific policy and development suggestions such as implementing deed-restricted housing for site development and for future projects, and to consider constructing an indoor transit hub. 
The town of Berwick is currently focusing its efforts on the site of the former Prime Tanning factory, an 11-acre property on Sullivan Street that will be developed into a large-scale mixed-use residential/retail property called the Edge at Berwick. 
Great Falls Construction of Gorham is the developer of the project, which will provide about 260 units of housing and 37 units of commercial space to anchor the revitalization of the downtown village while preserving Berwick’s rural, small town character, the report said.
Great Falls Construction said the project, which will feature market rate residential units, is currently in the process of working with the planning board and getting approvals. The housing units will include studio, and one and two-bedroom units. 
To help the project, Berwick created a 20-year tax increment finance district (TIF) and a credit enhancement agreement with Great Falls Construction, which estimated it will invest $50 million into the project, the report said.
The report praised the Edge project as significant, much-needed market rate housing, but said additional, mixed housing options are needed.
“As Berwick is redeveloped, housing prices will continue to rise if there isn’t a balance in the production of new housing, and rental housing is traditionally more affordable in terms of meeting workforce housing needs,” the TAP report said.
“Increased housing costs forces workers to continue to buy homes outside of the economic impact region of job growth, further increasing traffic problems throughout southern Maine. And as the number of typically low-to-moderate income service industry jobs (restaurant/retail) needed to support downtown redevelopment increases, the lack of diversity of housing types (starter homes, rentals, deed restricted) will only exacerbate the issue for the town and the region,” the report said.
Stakeholders also expressed concerns such as increased traffic and on-street parking that may result from the addition of housing units downtown and what the future of transit options will look like — particularly the proposed transit hubs.
Meanwhile, Kittery remains more in the ideas stage, rather than the planning stage of development.
The TAP report provides detailed redevelopment scenarios for two parcels of land designated in Kittery as sites of interest — the Water District, located at the intersection of U.S. Route 1 and Walker Street (Route 103), as well as the Outlets at Kittery on U.S. Route 1.

Suggestions for the town of Kittery included updating zoning to increase redevelopment options; making a concerted effort to explore additional regional parking options and carpool parking options, including consideration for Portsmouth Naval Shipyard to build additional structured parking on the installation. 
“Given that the two parcels are still in the ‘imagining’ stage, a number of issues need to be resolved before any planning moves forward,” the report said. “Coming up with a concrete plan for the appropriate mix of housing types and units (number of bedrooms), height and density, transit options and design standards, is premature until those issues are resolved.”
Another concern would be how much parking can be approved at the nearby Water District site, which could help to alleviate the bottleneck at the shipyard entrances, the report said. 
“I’m encouraged by the potential solutions identified in the Technical Assistance Panel report,” says Shipyard Commander Capt. Daniel Ettlich. “Just as Portsmouth Naval Shipyard’s world-class workforce is dedicated to our essential national security mission of delivering submarine readiness, I am committed to continuing to work with our community partners to find new resolutions to our mutual challenges related to workforce housing, parking, and traffic.” 
“There is tremendous opportunity to achieve smart growth in the communities of Berwick and Kittery,” said Jamie Simchik of Simchik Planning and Development, who co-chaired the technical advisory panel.

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