Originally published in The Weekly Packet, February 8, 2018
Can downtown be saved by a Main St. program?
Citizens group searches for solutions
by Faith DeAmbrose
With a significant number of downtown Blue Hill storefronts empty—some for many years—residents again came together to ask what can be done. Meeting in the library at George Stevens Academy on February 5, approximately 50 people came to hear about one option: the adoption of a Main Street program.
Under the auspices of the Maine Development Foundation, Main Street Maine Communities and Maine Downtown Network Communities exist across the state, some with paid staff and others with volunteer labor, but all following a four-point program aimed at creating vibrant, healthy downtowns. Anne Ball, the state’s program director, spoke about the program alongside staff from Main Street programs in Bucksport, Belfast and Rockland. Each program exists independently, but all receive support, resources and training from the Maine Downtown program, which promotes economic development and historic preservation.
Ball said that, in order to be successful in the Main Street program, there must be buy-in from all sectors of the population, specifically one-third of residents, municipal officials and local businesses. Collaborations with a local chamber of commerce or economic development organization is also helpful, she added.
While the panelists spoke about how they’ve successfully implemented programs in their communities, residents were eager to hear how it might work in their town. When Bucksport Main Street’s Brook Minner was asked about the program’s success in her town, she attributed it to four things: affordable housing, affordable commercial rents (all but one downtown space is currently occupied), supportive town government and a mostly full-time economy. Being familiar with Blue Hill, Minner noted that many of those issues are challenges facing Blue Hill. On the plus side she said, “People in Blue Hill have a lot more money” than in Bucksport.
In Rockland, Gordon Page is the Main Street program’s executive director and works closely with municipal officials to keep the program “at the top of mind.” In 2017, he and his volunteer board of directors saw increases in public participation at local events, increased participation in downtown merchant contests, rebuilt its website, launched a downtown walking map, organized cooperative advertising for downtown businesses in print publications, and created a Hiring Fair that drew 300 job seekers to town.
Breanna Pinkham Bebb, the former director of the Belfast Maine Street Community, said she highlighted the historic nature of town and would use it to the town’s advantage. Minner added that in Bucksport, her organization helped to write grants to save historic structures and, while she is not sure how successful her efforts will be in the long term, “we’ve bought some buildings some time,” she said.
As the meeting drew to a close, John Warren, who recently purchased four buildings in the downtown Blue Hill area, said that the next step in the process will be “a more serious discussion about joining,” and likely “another meeting.”
Already with one 501(c)3 entity, Blue Hill Community Development, residents asked if another group would be needed, but according to Warren and BHCD director John Burns, that will be up for discussion once a path forward clearly emerges.