In 2011, Alan Casavant was elected Mayor of Biddeford after teaching at Biddeford High School for 35 years. Casavant also served 18 years as a city councilman and eight years in the Maine Legislature, beginning in December 2006.
Casavant decided not to seek re-election this year, clearing the way for new leadership. Voters elected incoming mayor Martin “Marty” Grohmann earlier this month.
During Casavant’s tenure, the city has seen tremendous change and development, largely driven by the closure of a local waste-to-energy incinerator in 2012. Since then, residential and commercial development has sparked a revitalization, but also pushed up housing prices for a long time -temporary residents.
Alan Casavant sat down with Courier Biddeford-Saco-OOB last week to reflect on his time as mayor. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Many readers are familiar with your background—you’re a retired teacher and coach at Biddeford—but can you talk about how you first got involved in politics?
When I first got out of college, my friend David Redmond—who was very involved in local and state politics—approached me about running for city council. That was in 1975. I ran and won, I think by single digits. So there was a recount; I won this. That was my entry into politics. I liked it, I was just interested in being on the City Council.
From a high level, what are your biggest achievements as mayor?
I am proud of the reputation of the community and how it has changed. Within the first few days of taking office, I remember Daniel Stevenson, the director of economic development at the time, saying, “Alan, if you can do anything, try to change the atmosphere. Make Biddeford’s political scene more professional. If you do that, investors will come.” At that time, Biddeford politics was a mess. It was so bad that people watched town meetings on public television because it was entertainment. Now our meetings are boring as hell, which is good. So stabilizing the the political scene was the first step, and then we set about changing the center, which fueled public pride.
There is also a psychological aspect. We can talk about economic development, the removal of the incinerator was the catalyst for everything else that happened—there’s no doubt about that—but the intangible element was the pride that began to build in the community because of the economic development. People brag about living in Bideford today, it’s great.
Can you give readers an example of the lack of professionalism that has previously characterized Bideford politics?
Here’s a story. So this day we have a City Council meeting, the year was 1989 or 1990, there’s a guy sitting in the front row of the council chamber carrying a suitcase on his lap. This counselor nudges me and says “See that guy over there? Do you know what’s in this suitcase? It’s a gun. I asked him if he was sure and the counselor said he was. I told him we had to do something and he said, “Don’t worry, I got mine.” He raised his hand, he had a gun with him.
Are we naming names here?
I’m not naming names.
Maine is facing a housing crisis that has also affected Biddeford. Can you talk about some of your achievements when it comes to keeping Bideford liveable for working people and families. And do you think you could do more in this regard?
It is important to understand that mayors have limited power in Bideford. So basically I’m the face of Biddeford and my strength comes in advocacy. But in terms of actually getting things done, the real power rests with the council. (Mayors preside over City Council meetings and vote on City Council issues if there is a tie).
When you look at the housing crisis, you are right, Biddeford is not immune. There isn’t enough housing and the desirability of Biddeford has changed the dynamic tremendously. People began moving into Biddeford, buying buildings and renovating them. There were all these apartments that were substandard, but people renovated them and reinvested in them. So the fear that these apartments were substandard disappeared, but what happened at the same time is that rents started to rise as landlords began to recoup the money they had invested in the substandard apartments. So the price of this home just goes up. And this is coming from someone who vividly remembers my mom and dad paying $35 a month in rent when I was a kid.
Can you talk about times when you have advocated on behalf of affordable housing?
A few years ago, I appointed a special committee to look at affordable housing. They came back with a report and identified some of the contributors to the housing problem and set out goals and objectives.
We also realized that the city itself does not have the funding simply to create affordable housing. So how do we get more funding? I give a lot of credit to City Manager Jim Bennett for this, as he came up with the idea. Tax Increment Financing (TIF) is a tool that allows you to place boundaries around a property and use the funds generated by that property for specific purposes. There is such a thing as a “residential TIF.” Previously, money generated by a residential TIF had to be used for the same project. Working with our legislators, we changed state law so that if you put in a residential TIF, you can take the money and invest it in affordable housing on property in another part of town. (More information on the ad hoc committee, the Mayor’s Affordable Housing Task Force, can be found here: https://www.biddefordmaine.org/3295/Mayors-Affordable-Housing-Task-Force)
A few weeks ago, voters elected a new mayor, Martin Grohmann, who you supported. Why did you back him and what will be his biggest challenges?
Philosophically we are similar, but not identical. I have worked with him in the past. I have seen how involved he is with society. I know he has a passion for the community. He’s also the right demographic, younger than me and has a family. I think he has the right personality to be able to do that. (Grohman is an Independent. Casavant is a Democrat)
And the biggest problem he will face is obviously housing. There is no clear and easy answer to solving it.
Bideford has changed significantly under your leadership, how has the town hall changed you?
You have to remember that I taught for 35 years. Being mayor is basically the same job, except the students are bigger. The keys to teaching were three: first is repetition, repeating often to drill it; second, connecting the dots to make sure the concepts you’re talking about are connected to other things the children have understood; and third, making children feel special. Because if you make everyone feel special, then you have them. You boost their self-esteem and they feel that someone cares about them. So in the public space it is the same.
So I don’t think I’ve changed per se. I’m pretty much the same. I really appreciate Bideford and the people here. I thought teaching would be a five-year gig for me, but the kids were great. It made me feel good when they were able to achieve things they never thought possible, so I stayed for 35 years. My involvement in politics was just an extension of that. I knew Biddeford could be better if they believed in themselves again, and I think that’s what we did.
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