The developer of a proposed $1 billion veteran memorial park featuring the world’s tallest flagpole is reassessing its business structure to try and entice more investors. Meanwhile, the tiny Down East town it hopes to build in is considering a moratorium on large-scale development.
The Flagpole of Freedom Park — a sprawling proposal by the family behind Wreaths Across America — has met some resistance from potential donors because of the park’s corporate structure as a for-profit business.
The company, which says it wants to have the massive tourist destination up and running by 2026, is currently “exploring the business structure and formation” to make it easier to gain investors from the public and private sectors, according to Mike Worcester, a cofounder of the park.
At the same time, Columbia Falls has hired an attorney to draft a moratorium to give the town a chance to figure out what ordinances are needed to safeguard the town as plans for the unprecedented project develop. An initial review of the moratorium is expected in December.
Columbia Falls currently has no land use ordinances outside of its shoreland zones, which are required under state law.
“There’s a huge percentage of acreage in Columbia Falls that has no zoning whatsoever,” said Aga Dixon, a lawyer brought on by the municipality to help guide it through the process.
Though Dixon said the moratorium is just to give the town time, the company seems to be lining up against the idea.
“If municipal officials and the majority of residents in Columbia Falls want to put a moratorium in place, that is up to them,” said Worcester. “Our project will move forward, and either the state or another municipality will reap the social, tax and economic benefits should Columbia Falls choose not to work with us in the future.”
The park has not yet submitted an application to the town. Representatives of the park noted the balking of potential donors at a Select Board meeting last month.
“We have had a number of veteran organizations that we approached to invest in the project from the beginning push back due to the ‘for-profit’ financial structure of the park,” Tim Pease, the park’s attorney, said at a meeting according to the Quoddy Tides. “The ‘for-profit’ plan was a shock to the veteran groups and has caused us to slow things down.”
Worcester said the park expects a “big announcement” on the topic in early 2023, and town officials are already wary of the chances of the project moving in the direction of a nonprofit model.
From the outset, the company said this would be a for-profit entity and not connected to Wreaths Across America, which has been scrutinized in the past for its closeness to the family business.
At a meeting Monday, Select Board member Jeff Greene said that the initial selling point of the project was that it would bring in millions of tax dollars — something that wouldn’t happen if the project is owned by a nonprofit.
“Nonprofit wasn’t part of this at all from the beginning,” he said.
The potential for restructuring has, at the park’s request, slowed down the application process and delayed the need for quick action on a possible annexation of about 16 square miles of land from neighboring unorganized townships.
The park had proposed an annexation that would bring all of the park into Columbia Falls, a potential tax windfall town. But it would also pull the project out from under the jurisdiction of a state planning commission that has significantly stricter rules and more experience handling larger projects than Columbia Falls, a town with about 500 people.
The current “pause,” as town officials described it, was called for by the project in August and it’s unclear how long it will last. But the town is taking this break to prepare the moratorium and develop other criteria on how to evaluate and address the impact of large-scale commercial development on the community and its resources.
An attendee at Monday’s select board meeting also questioned the finances of Worcester Holdings. The family company is listed as one of the largest unsecured creditors in the Stored Solar bankruptcy filings.
According to court documents, Stored Solar owes Worcester Holdings about $888,000, among the highest of any unsecured claimant in the case. Worcester said that the Stored Solar and Flagpole of Freedom Park are different projects and “neither one has a direct or indirect impact on the other.”
The Flagpole of Freedom Park was proposed by the Worcester family in March. The park is advertised as a sprawling national monument on a 2,500-acre area in Washington County.
The big draw would be a 1,471 foot observation tower that would double as a flagpole to fly an American flag bigger than a football field. The Worcesters also hope to erect 9 miles of memorial walls displaying the names of veterans, six history museums and a development with hotels, restaurants, shops and an event venue.
Even with all the uncertainties around the project, town officials plan to forge ahead with consideration of the moratorium and possibly could have a draft ready for the town to see in a few weeks.
“The idea is to give the town time to do some planning work that is necessary regardless if the flagpole project moves forward,” Dixon said.