Acting Town Manager William Hart introduced Arnett Development Group at the Monday night Town Council meeting as his choice to be the town’s planning and development contractor. But with questions about the contract and addendums to the contract that councilors did not have, the matter was continued until the council’s next meeting.
Councilor Joe Green said he was a little “dismayed” that Town Planner Cynthia May was not at the meeting. “I didn’t think that this was the direction that we were going to go in with this,” Green said. “I thought that it was a pay-as-you-go type of conversation. I find myself surprised – and I don’t like to be surprised – and Cynthia is not here to explain why we went down this road.”
Hart said they wanted to have somebody who would have a stake in the process. He said looking at Woodmont Commons as an example, the project is a long term, 20 to 25 year project. Pettengill Road in turn could take four to five years. “It just didn’t seem to make sense at the end of the day that we could buy help like hiring a real estate broker. It just didn’t come together that way,” Hart said.
He said they found it a struggle to come up with a strictly commission-based system.
“Quite frankly this is government, not the private sector,” Hart said. He noted that hiring Arnett as consultant with a retainer seemed to be the right way to go. “It’s a very low retainer rate and there is opportunity for expansion and opportunity for contraction, so it kind of married some of those things we wanted,” Hart said.
Green noted that the commitment was for $3,500 per month or $42,000 per year. “What is the $3,500 a month or $42,000 going to buy us?” Green asked. Hart said there were addendums to the contract that weren’t included in the councilors’ packet but included work on the Woodmont Commons Planned Use Development project, business retention, reaching out to community organizations, working with stakeholders on the Pettengill Road project, and getting involved with ongoing discussions.
“This is very beneficial to the taxpayers in that what we used to pay $150,000 for, we are paying $42,000, or less than a third of that cost,” Hart said. Councilor Jim Butler said if there were addendums he had not seen, he was not comfortable voting on the measure. In explaining how Arnett was selected, Hart said, “The Community Development Department a year ago went through some changes, and one of the goals of the council was to look at ways in which we could perhaps privatize or get better value of some of the aspects of planning and economic development.”
As a result, and under May’s leadership, town officials came up with “the idea that we could take the development piece and turn that into a contracted piece.” They looked at businesses that could provide planning services, particularly those that had expertise in municipal, state, and federal regulations.
“We were looking for somebody who was familiar with grants, business development, business retention and concepts of municipal planning,” Hart said. From their search they chose Arnett Development Group, and engaged that firm as part of the “public/private partnership of contracting these services.”
Hart said he thought that not only would Arnett Development provide benefit to the town in terms of value for services, but it would also allow for expansion and contraction as needed, as challenges like Woodmont and Pettengill Road arise.
Stuart Arnett, managing member of Arnett Development Group, told the Council, “it was a good idea” to contract with a development group, as it allowed for services “when needed, where needed.
“We have the ability to call on a variety of specialized services – architectural, engineering, landscape design, marketing people – immediately, but if you don’t need them, then you’re not carrying them,” Arnett said.
Arnett commended the town for being focused on outcomes and on projects. “This is a great time for Londonderry to look at different ways of doing things,” he said. “The Master Plan is out and you have at least one major project that is in the pipeline that is going to have an effect on the community one way or another. You continue to be the strongest growth market in the state. The interstate is widening, which is going to affect this town one way or another, so this is a great time to ensure quality control on the planning side and to take these opportunities and direct them to development that is most beneficial to the town.”
Arnett said his first step is to listen, and he wants the council to talk with Hart or May and convey to them its wishes so he can learn what is wanted. Councilor Tom Dolan said that when Gov. Maggie Hassan was asked about Pettengill Road, she said she didn’t know much about it.
“So in my view, at least way up near the top, if not job one, is to organize the stakeholders that include the airport director, City of Manchester, the land owners, the Town of Londonderry together, and get in front of her and make sure that she helps, and I’m sure she will, once she’s educated on it, and create a pull for that very important and strategic development,” Dolan said.
Councilor Tom Freda offered a different perspective on Pettengill Road.
He said Pettengill Road properties have private owners, and it could be safely assumed that they don’t want to pay the $13 million for construction. Then there are the taxpayers of Londonderry who have nothing to gain by building Pettengill Road, and he would safely assume they would vote no on $13 million to allow private landowners to profit. Finally, he said, there are the businesses that would eventually come to Pettengill Road, but don’t want to pay the upfront costs of $13 million.
“Given those parameters, how is it ever going to happen?” Freda asked.
Arnett said everyone would need to be in sync for Pettengill Road to happen. “We need to get smarter, talk to people and develop some strategies,” Arnett said. Dolan said it appeared to be the consensus of the council to continue the discussion until the next meeting of May 20, and no vote to accept the contract with Arnett was taken.