In 2011, Alan Casavant was elected mayor of Biddeford after teaching at Biddeford High School for 35 years. Casavant also previously served 18 years as a city councilor and eight years in the Maine Legislature, starting in December 2006.
Casavant decided not to run for re-election this year, clearing the way for new leadership. Voters elected incoming Mayor Martin “Marty” Grohman earlier this month.
During Casavant’s tenure, the city has seen enormous change and development, largely triggered by the closure of a local waste-to-energy incinerator in 2012. Since then, residential and commercial development has ushered in revival, but also pushed up housing prices for long-time residents.
Alan Casavant sat down with the Biddeford-Saco-OOB Courier last week to reflect on his time as mayor. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Many readers are familiar with you background — you are a retired Biddeford educator and coach — 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. This was in 1975. I ran and won, I think by single digit votes. So there was a recount; I won that. That was my entry into politics. I loved it, I just found being on the City Council really interesting.
Taking a high level view, what are you biggest accomplishments as mayor?
I’m 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 economic development director at the time, said: “Alan, if you can do anything, try to change the atmosphere. Make the Biddeford political scene more professional. If you do that, the investors will come.” At the time, Biddeford’s politics was chaos. It was so bad that people would watch city meetings on public access television because it was entertainment. Now our meetings are boring as hell, which is good. So stabilizing the political scene was the first step, and then we got to work changing the downtown, which fueled public pride.
There’s 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 within the community because of the economic development. People brag about living in Biddeford today, that’s pretty cool.
Can you give readers and example of the lack of professionalism that previously characterized Biddeford’s politics?
Here’s a story. So this one day we’re having a City Council meeting, the year was 1989 or 1990, there’s this guy sitting in the front row of the council chambers and he’s got a suit case on his lap. This councilor nudges me and says “See that guy over there? You know what’s in that suitcase? It’s a gun.” I asked him if he was sure, and the councilor said he was. I told him we had to do something, and he said “Don’t worry, I got mine.” He lifted up his arm, he had a gun with him as well.
Are we naming names here?
I’m not naming names.
Maine is facing a housing crisis, which has also impacted Biddeford. Can you talk about some of your accomplishments when it comes to keeping Biddeford livable for working people and families. And do you think there’s more you could have done in that regard?
It’s essential to understand that mayors have limited power in Biddeford. So essentially, I am the face of Biddeford and my power comes in advocacy. But in terms of actually making things happen, real power lies with the council. (Mayors preside over City Council meetings and cast votes in City Council matters if there is a tie).
When you look at the housing crisis, you’re right, Biddeford is not immune. There’s not enough housing, and Biddeford’s desirability has changed the dynamic tremendously. People began moving into Biddeford and buying buildings and fixing them up. There used to be 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 concurrently with that is rents began to rise as landlords began to recoup the money they invested in the substandard apartments. So the price of that housing, it’s just it’s going up. And this is coming from someone that remembers clearly that my mother and father paid $35 a month for rent when I was a kid.
Can you talk about instances when you did advocate on behalf of affordable housing?
A couple of years ago I appointed an ad hoc committee to look at affordable housing. They came back with a report and identified some of the contributors to the housing issue and laid out goals and objectives.
We also realized that the city by itself doesn’t have the funding to simply 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 put boundaries around a property and use the funds that are generated by that property for specific purposes. There is such a thing as a “housing TIF.” Previously, money generated from a housing TIF had to be used on that same project. Working with our legislators, we changed the state law so that if you put a housing TIF in place, you can take the money and invest the money in affordable housing on a piece of property in another part of the city. (More information about 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 chose a new mayor, Martin Grohman — who you endorsed. Why did you endorse him and what will his biggest challenges be?
Philosophically we’re similar, but not identical. I’ve worked with him in the past. I’ve seen how involved he is in the community. I know he has a passion for the community. He’s also the right demographic, he’s younger than me and he has a family. I think he has the right personality to be able to do this. (Grohman is an Independent. Casavant is a Democrat)
And the biggest issue he’ll face is obviously housing. There is no clear, easy answer to solve it.
Biddeford has changed enormously under your leadership, how has serving as mayor changed you?
You have to remember that I taught for 35 years. Being mayor is essentially the same job, except the pupils are older. The keys to teaching were threefold: first is repetition, repeating yourself often to drill it in; second, connecting the dots to make sure that the concepts your talking are connectable to other things the kids understood; and third, making the kids feel special. Because if you make each one feel special, you have them. You boost their self confidence and they feel that someone cares about them. So in the public domain it’s the same thing.
So I don’t think I’ve changed per se. I’m pretty much the same. I really appreciate Biddeford and the people here. I thought teaching was going to be a five-year gig for me, but the kids were great. It made me feel good when they could achieve things they never thought was possible, so I stayed for 35 years. My involvement in politics was just an extension of that. I knew Biddeford could be better if it believed in itself again, and I think that’s what we’ve done.