Originally published in The Weekly Packet, April 19, 2018
Blue Hill sees downtown resurgence
by Anne Berleant
Whether a result of a better economy, new entrepreneurial spirit or a combination of both, a handful of new restaurants and businesses are opening downtown this spring and summer.
While positive signs of revitalization appear, one piece hasn’t changed in downtown, that local business owners no longer own the buildings they operate from. As was the case through the 1980s, building operators now rent from landlords, not all of them local.
“I track this as a big issue,” Selectman Ellen Best recently said.
Absentee and new landlords don’t often have the understanding of the town that native and longtime residents have, she continued. “You have to try and understand the politics of the town you come into. That comes with time.”
Selectmen, businessmen and community groups are all working to offer year-round residents a high quality of life and be a destination for visitors.
In 2016, Blue Hill Community Development formed, filing as a 501(C)(3) nonprofit a year later. The citizen group moved from a narrow focus—sidewalks on South Street— to a role of fostering discussion and projects.
“BHCD wants so to be a sort of neutral proponent for developing Blue Hill’s community and economy,” President John Burns said.
Working with citizen groups is not always simple, selectmen noted. Selectmen submitted an MDOT grant application for BHCD for the sidewalk project in 2017 when the group found out a municipal sign-off was needed.
“A long sidewalk down South Street might not be on the top of [our] list,” Schatz said. “It puts us in a difficult situation.”
But it does start the conversation, Selectman Vaughn Leach noted. “We listen first, and judge second.”
Does downtown need a master plan?
When entrepreneur and building owner John Warren began holding public meetings on downtown, selectmen listened. They were already familiar with Main Street Maine, a National Trust program Warren is enthusiastic about, after the chamber of commerce brought the idea to them three years ago. Leach even attended an informational meeting held by Maine Development Foundation to find out more.
Main Street Maine assists with creating a plan to enhance downtown revitalization hand-in-hand with historic preservation.
“I don’t think anyone appreciates, including me, the market shifts in the last 10 years,” Warren said. “We are living in a very unusual time in that the standard rules of markets don’t apply. When enough data is not collected, the result is unintended consequences.”
The program addresses housing as part of revitalization efforts, a topic not often addressed but that more than one community member describes as “the elephant in the room.”
“That is one of the huge keys that immediately needs to be addressed,” said Julie Jo Fehrle, a proponent for downtown businesses.
But joining the program, with its required economic development and coordinator positions, costs money, which Warren acknowledges. The towns in Maine that have joined are larger: Bath, Brunswick, Rockland and Belfast are a few.
“The selectmen are supportive of anything that revitalizes downtown,” Warren continued. “The reluctance to encourage a Main Street organization is fear of cost.”
The selectmen are more interested in “growth management,” Schatz said. “A strategy that anticipates, in some way, where things are going to happen.”
But Warren, who owns three downtown properties that are homes to new businesses, sees insufficient downtown parking, and a recently approved street vending ordinance that he said not enough thought went into.
“As much as is at stake, it shouldn’t be based on the opinions of one, or three, people, or even the community.”
More than Main Street
“As selectmen, we can’t make unilateral decisions,” Selectman Ellen Best said.
What the selectmen can do is act in ways that increase the overall quality of life in Blue Hill. The board pointed to the fitness center being built on Mines Road by the Lawrence Family Foundation, the harbor dredging project that, if it happens, will allow all-tide access to the downtown waterfront, and the first raising of town funds to renovate the town playground. Past actions such as housing the New Surry Theatre in the town hall auditorium and supporting local health and education institutions also contribute to the quality of life in Blue Hill.
“I really think presently there’s good activity taking place,” Best said.
And one responsibility of the board is to bear in mind costs that add to the town budget and, ultimately, the taxpayer.
“The three of us try to think what we can do with what we do have,” Schatz said.
Selectmen are interested in possibilities in town-owned property stretching from behind MERI, on Main Street, to the waterfront. A 10-year plan for a stretch of public land “would qualify us to go after some real money grants,” Best said.
And, with the sale of a foreclosed Parker Point Lane property in 2017, the town has several hundreds of thousands of dollars to purchase public waterfront access geared towards non-motorized boats, which they are currently working on.
All of these efforts are geared towards enhancing the overall quality of life in Blue Hill, Schatz said. His fellow selectmen agreed.
“It’s getting to the point now where the puzzle is being put together,” Leach said.