With major changes coming to the commercial landscape shared along a stretch of Route 1, four Midcoast municipalities are working closely to coordinate future development.
Embracing the old adage that "a rising tide lifts all boats," officials from Thomaston, Rockland, Rockport and Camden have been meeting monthly since last fall to brainstorm ideas for a collaborative approach to development along the part of Route 1 that runs through their towns.
Even though the effort hasn't generated a plan yet, it is generating anticipation, according to Penobscot Bay Regional Chamber Executive Director Dan Bookham.
"This gives us a real chance to present a regional profile to businesses looking to relocate in this area," he says. "That's a tremendous benefit."
"So often small communities of 4,000 people or so aren't large enough to get on anyone's radar, so by collaborating, we can control our own fate so that it makes sense for all," he says. "It gets us beyond the artificiality of a zip code."
While the four communities have tested collaboration before, there hasn't been an effort with as much depth as this one, says Bob Peabody, Rockport's town manager. So far the effort is in "storming mode," as he puts it, discussing a number of topics in the last few months.
Much of the discussion relates to issues raised during the now-defunct Gateway 1 process. Gateway 1 was to supposed to be a collaboration among the Federal Highway Administration, Maine Department of Transportation and 20 coastal communities to examine and address land use and transportation challenges along a 100-mile stretch of Route 1 while preserving the area's rural character. The six-year initiative was scuttled last year because of a lack of state money.
"The Gateway process heightened the need for towns to work together. We started to realize how development affects neighbors," Peabody says. "In the past, lines of communication haven't been so great, but the process opened eyes, and town officials are more receptive to the idea."
Audrey Lovering, Rockland's community development director, says that while there were some hurt feelings during the Gateway process and other shared-development efforts in the past, current attitudes toward collaboration have changed for the better.
"We decided early on that the past is the past, so let's focus on the future," she says. "It really is a small community, so you run into everyone everywhere."
The main driver behind this particular effort was last year's decision by Walmart to relocate its Rockland store to neighboring Thomaston, just over three miles away. Construction is expected to start in the spring and be completed later this year .
"When Rockland discussed Walmart leaving, they reached out to Thomaston, Rockport and Camden for a giant meeting," Peabody says.
Thomaston officials voted last September to approve the $28 million project, first proposed in 2006. The move allows Walmart to increase its midcoast footprint by nearly 60% over the size of its current store's 150,000 square feet — the maximum allowed under Thomaston's size limit ordinance. As with the mega retailer's other supercenters, the new location will add a supermarket to the more traditional Walmart store. The developer of the new Walmart site also plans to build a 5,600-square-foot restaurant, as well as an additional 62,400 square feet of retail space.
The Thomaston Walmart is just the latest in a series of commercial development along that particular stretch of Route 1, which has been something of a hotbed for development since 1999.
That's when Flagship Cinemas opened a seven-screen movie theater, which expanded to 10 screens in 2002. In the last 10 years, Hampton Inn & Suites, Applebee's restaurant, Dunkin' Donuts, Lowe's Home Improvement and Midcoast Federal Credit Union have sprouted up nearby.
Within the last few months alone, a convenience store, gas station and McDonald's restaurant have also entered the mix. Redlon & Johnson, a wholesale plumbing, heating and cooling supplies distributor that currently operates a local business in Rockland, has proposed a 10,800-square-foot building nearby. To accommodate this development boom, Thomaston undertook a $5 million reconstruction of Route 1 in 2007.
Not surprisingly, the financial benefit of all this development to the town is substantial. Even before factoring Walmart into the equation, Thomaston generates more than $500,000 a year in property taxes from this relatively short stretch of Route 1, according to the Bangor Daily News. As Rockland's fourth-largest taxpayer, Walmart pays $190,000 in property taxes each year.
Walmart's decision to vacate the Rockland location it has occupied since 1992 was a long time coming. In 2000, the company proposed an expansion across Route 1 from its current site. At that time, city councilors and the public debated the proposal prior to the council's planned June 2000 advisory referendum. The expansion never came to fruition, as Walmart dropped its plans because of high costs associated with developing that lot. The Home Depot has since been built there.
However, Walmart's pending relocation isn't necessarily a bad thing for the region, Peabody says.
"Every challenge affords opportunity," he says. "We're looking at it as 'What are we going to be able to do without it there?' and I know Rockland is, too."
Lovering agrees, adding that there are many reasons for the city to be optimistic about its prospects in the wake of Walmart's pending departure — not the least of which is the property tax issue.
"This is an amazing opportunity. We don't see it as gloom and doom because Walmart is leaving," she says. "What a lot of people don't realize is that Walmart owns the property, so whether it's full or empty, they'll continue to pay property taxes."
The larger issue, Lovering says, is determining how best to make use of the section of Route 1, locally known as the Camden Street corridor. The question is: What do we want there?
"We've heard complaints from people that that area isn't walking-friendly and that it isn't driving-friendly, so we have to figure out where we want it to be now and in the next 10 years," she says. "Our No. 1 goal for this year is Camden Street, and we want others to participate."
What Rockland doesn't want is for the area to be loaded up with big box stores and chains to the extent that it loses the character that has made it a destination.
"We don't want Camden Street to be 'Anywhere, USA,'" she says.
One plan that's been discussed in Rockland, Lovering says, is creating some sort of public transportation that would make getting around Camden Street much more palatable for residents and visitors alike. The city is currently working to determine whether this is feasible.
While the towns would love to involve Walmart in the process, Lovering says that hasn't been as easy as they'd hoped.
"We're struggling to get Walmart to engage. They're such a large, multinational corporation that we're trying to find out which department is the right one to talk to," she says. "We really want to reach out to them and ask, 'How can we help you? What can we do for you?'"
A potential complication to any plan Rockland may have for its stretch of Route 1 is the sheer number of zoning ordinances — 11 to be exact — that exist along a mile-and-a-half stretch of road between Burger King and the Rockport line. Lovering says this has been a subject of considerable scrutiny in terms of history and usefulness.
"It looks like just about every plaza along that stretch had its own special zoning," she says.
Both Lovering and Peabody agree that the mix of commercial and residential development is also a challenge, albeit one that's worth tackling the right way.
"We're looking at the whole section, not simply the Walmart lot," Lovering says. "It's not simply about commercial vs. residential; it's about what's best for all of us. Each [town] has an important voice in the process."
Bookham, the chamber executive, says seeking input from all stakeholders — residents, businesses, municipal and state agencies — can only serve to strengthen the outcome. A mixed-use plan that incorporates commercial activity with pocket parks and some residential areas would be ideal, he says, but the details would need to be worked out collaboratively.
For Peabody, and for his town in general, preserving the transition from Rockland to Rockport at Glen Cove Village is a major consideration.
"We've always been keenly aware of the effect of the commercial strip that borders Glen Cove Village," Peabody says. "We've always looked at it in the comprehensive plan as the gateway to Rockport. That transition says who we are."
Rockland and Rockport officials have talked about the potential to make the sidewalks that span the line between them friendlier to pedestrians, and help retain Glen Cove's quaint, rural character.
"We're realizing how important streetscape is. You want people to slow down and stop the car. A lot of Camden Street hasn't been designed that way, so we need to get back to what makes us unique," Peabody says. "We want to retain that uniqueness while giving those shopping opportunities people have come to expect. I'm not sure how to do it, but there is a way to do it."
While there haven't been any plans created yet, Lovering says the time to start engaging the public is close at hand. To that end, the group recently met with Jane LaFleur, executive director of Friends of Midcoast Maine, to explore strategies for public engagement.
"She gave us some great ideas for things to think about: How best to invite public interaction, how to get the most out of it, and how to incorporate it into the plan," Lovering says.
Later this month, Rockland's economic advisory committee is meeting to discuss the best format for engaging both property owners and residents, which key questions to address and the best tools to get that crucial public input.
In Rockport, the town is considering the same issues of timing and approach.
"We're mulling over how soon we want to get public input," Peabody says. "In April, it will likely surface as an agenda item. For example, will we want to do a survey or neighborhood meeting? We want to start gathering ideas before we move forward on anything."
Bookham applauds the effort to engage the public at the outset.
"I think good people are in place working on this … it's heartening to see them reaching out to neighbors first and not as a last resort," he says.
What excites Lovering, who came to Rockland last July, is the spirit of open communication that's been cultivated between Rockand and its neighbors.
"I can't say enough about the value of communities working together," she says. "It's key to making project successful, and it was great to have both Rockland and Rockport on board at the very beginning."
Despite this close neighborly collaboration, Lovering says she's not na´ve enough to think that any one town or city can influence the actions another ultimately decides to pursue.
"At the end of the day, we don't have any say about what happens in Rockport, and vice versa, but we're working together to open those lines of communication so we're not surprised by something the board or council decides," she says.