Downtown Revitalization Success Stories
(from
Maine Townsman, June 2003)
By Michael L. Starn, Editor

        Success in downtown revitalization boils down to “local commitment and leadership”, says Darcy Rollins, coordinator of the Maine Downtown Center, a program of the Maine Development Foundation.

       Successful downtown revitalization occurs when business people, municipal officials and citizens share a common goal and vision for the downtown.

       Across the State of Maine, municipal officials are working with their local businesses and citizen volunteers to rejuvenate downtowns that suffer from the economic competition of malls and “big box” stores and vacant buildings that have been neglected for too long.  A new enthusiasm is growing and spreading in Maine about how downtowns can once again become the place where people gather and a sense of community is created.

       Three veteran municipal managers in different parts of the state have been actively involved in downtown revitalization projects in their respective communities throughout most of the 1990’s. David Holt has been town manager in Norway for the past 14 years; Don Guimond has worked as Fort Kent’s town manager since 1993; and Michael Roy is the town manager of Oakland, a position he has held for almost eight years.

       These three managers have each experienced the highs and lows of downtown revitalization projects.  The communities they work for have comparable populations but are geographically and economically different.  The local leaders and business people in these communities also have a distinct and different vision for their respective downtowns.

Preserving A Town’s History

       The Town of Norway, located in Oxford County, has a population of 4,611 and a citizenry with a deep appreciation for the town’s history.  About 100 years ago, the entire downtown village was destroyed by fire.  Shortly afterwards, the downtown was rebuilt.  The 70 or so buildings that now line the town’s Main Street are approximately the same age and with each passing year, their historical significance increases.

       Responding to a recent town-wide survey, Norway residents ranked “preserving the heritage of the downtown” as their number one concern.  A similar survey conducted 10 years ago did not reflect the same sentiments, according to Town Manager David Holt.

       A number of things have happened to Norway’s downtown since Holt arrived in town 14 years ago.  There have been sidewalk improvements, housing rehabilitation, water and sewer infrastructure upgrades, and new businesses setting up shop in the downtown.  Recent, notable business growth includes New Balance’s acquisition of the old Newberry’s department store building and the conversion of a local bakery into a food co-op.

       Holt says that downtown revitalization is hard work, and challenging.  “The reality is that almost everything works against you,” he says.

       Typically, downtowns have older buildings that require extensive renovation and are costly to maintain and heat.  Then, there’s the competition for retailing from the “big box” stores and shopping malls.  The third challenge is people’s driving habits: they don’t mind driving a few extra miles as long as there’s plenty of parking space.

       “We need to find our niche,” says Holt.

       The professionals in downtown development agree.  “The lesson of history is that there are not just a few types of downtowns in form and function but that each downtown is fundamentally unique,” said Laurence Alexander, president of Alexander Communications Group, in a recent article found on the website of the Downtown Research & Development Center (www.downtowndevelopment.com)

       Alexander goes on to say that the greatest strength of a community’s downtown is its unique, local qualities. “Local thinking and creativity is what makes local downtown programs successful because that builds on the foundation your downtown’s uniqueness,” says Alexander.

       A large part of Norway’s success, according to Holt, can be attributed to the enthusiastic support of the residents.  “People here really care about the downtown,” he says.

       “Caring and presence are as important as money,” Holt says.  He points to the town’s participation in the “New Neighbors Program” under the Maine State Housing Authority as illustrative of this philosophy.  This program helps individuals purchase and renovate structures in a town-designated area, if the owner is willing to live in the building.  Downtown buildings that have residences on the upper floors are targeted for the program.

       Norway has a downtown manager.  The part-time position comes under the Norway Revitalization Group, a downtown association, and is paid for with a town appropriation of $10,000 and contributions from supporting businesses.

A Border Town

       Fort Kent sits right on the northern Maine-Canadian border.  The population is 4,233.  Its downtown is divided by the Fish River which separates East Main and West Main streets.  The total length of the downtown is about one mile.

       The challenge facing the Fort Kent downtown, according to Town Manager Don Guimond, is attracting businesses that are willing to invest in a small retail environment.

       The downtown in Fort Kent does not face the same retail competition pressures – big boxes and shopping malls — that communities in central and southern Maine have.  The closest Wal-Mart is in Presque Isle (about 60 miles south) and Madawaska (25 miles) has a Kmart.

       Officials in Fort Kent would like to attract some of the national retail chains to the downtown.  To date, McDonald’s, Rite Aid, and Family Dollar have located in the downtown.

       The reality for Fort Kent’s downtown, however, lies not in the national retail chains, but the homegrown, Mom & Pop retail establishments.  “Most of our effort has been to get local businesses to set up shop,” says Guimond.  He points to a recently-opened bookstore in the downtown (not Barnes & Noble) as an example of the type of local retail businesses the officials are trying to foster in the downtown.

       Fort Kent’s downtown is a mix of commercial offices, retail businesses and residential housing.  The town has used housing rehab money to spruce up some of the residences on West Main St.  Guimond says that town officials are happy with the current commercial/residential mix.

       Some of the challenges facing Fort Kent’s downtown are unique to its location.  “The Canadian exchange rate has make it difficult for us,” says Guimond.  Another challenge has been the overall economic decline in Aroostook County.  The town relies heavily on a natural resouces-based economy that hasn’t fared well over the past decade.  One bright spot, however, is that Fort Kent’s population showed only a slight decline (30 fewer residents) between the 1990 and 2000 censuses.

       Downtown revitalization started in earnest here in 1992.  Over the last 10 years the town has received CDBG funds,  worked with MDOT and the Department of Conservation, and used tax increment financing (TIF) to improve its downtown.  Sidewalks, trees, benches, street lamps, sewer and water drains, relocating utility lines, and a system of trails have been part of the downtown revitalization effort.

       While acknowledging that these improvements have created a more positive attitude towards the downtown by local residents, Guimond says that the infrastructure and other improvements don’t guarantee anything.  “Having success in downtown revitalization is a continuing battle (that requires ongoing attention),” he says.

Planning Is Key

       Oakland is a medium-sized town, 5,959 population, next to Waterville.  None of the buildings in the downtown have any particular historical significance, and there is no residential housing since most of the buildings are single-story.  The downtown faces serious retail competition from the big boxes and shopping centers in Waterville.

       “We’re trying to find unique businesses that fit our niche,” says Town Manager Michael Roy.

       Planning has been the key to Oakland’s downtown successes, says Roy.  One of the first things that Roy did when he began his town manager duties in Oakland was to engage town officials in long range planning.

       “Be ready for business growth,” says Roy, because you never know when it going to happen or with what intensity it will happen.

       Roy also advises municipal officials not to wait for things to happen.  “Be out front,” he says, “be ready when business growth happens for it can happen very quickly.”

       Planning for the Oakland downtown began back in the 1970’s, according to Roy.  The town received a community betterment grant that was used for some small-scale downtown improvements.

       Downtown improvements were on the back-burner for most the 1980’s, but towards the end of the decade, town officials commissioned a consultant to study the downtown and prepare a report for its development.  That report, says Roy, served as the starting point for CDBG applications that were submitted in the 1990’s.  After several unsuccessful grant applications, the town was awarded a $400,000 community development grant in 2001.  The grant has been used to provide street and sidewalk improvements, decorative lighting, trees, and façade improvements.

       Roy points to the planning that took place and the unified effort of business owners and town officials.  “Both groups agreed that something needed to be done,” he said.

       For municipal officials involved in downtown development, Roy advises them to look closely at what the downtown has for assets and maximize them.  He also feels that it is important to find your downtown’s niche.  “What services can be offered?  And, what can’t?  Look for businesses that fit your niche.”