Debora King, the Brunswick Downtown Association's executive director since 2012, is part of a downtown that experienced significant growth and success in recent years. The BDA sponsors and organizes 31 events annually, most of them free to the public. Its membership has expanded to nearly 300 members, up from fewer than 50 members six years ago.
In 2012, Brunswick was one of 19 municipalities receiving a Healthy Maine Streets designation by the Maine Development Foundation. King recently returned from the National Main Streets Conference, which was held in Detroit and was attended by 1,400 downtown planners, professionals and volunteers.
Mainebiz: What was your biggest take-away from the national conference?
Debora King: It was the validation that we are doing the right thing in Brunswick and that the Main Street [concept] is a proven method of maintaining and growing vibrancy of downtowns. Also, it was learning to capitalize on what you've got. We're becoming renowned for our diversification of food offerings. We have great ethnic restaurants, including a national awards-winning chef in Cara Stadler at Tao Yuan. So we'll be looking at establishing a state designation for Brunswick's downtown as a culinary district.
MB: As a proponent of a strong downtown, how do you weigh in when a chain and independent, local business vie for the same storefront?
DK: Fortunately, we don't run into that issue in our downtown simply because the spaces that are available don't tend to lend themselves to large chains. So they're more apt to attract smaller, independent businesses. Larger chains want more space, more parking. They're not apt to take a second floor for apartments. It's just a different dynamic. But the larger Brunswick community has space for both groups — large chains and small independents. There is room for both.
MB: What advice do you have for towns suffering from blight? How can they get from ghost town to vibrancy?
DK: I think it's largely recognizing where your strengths are. For the individual business owners, it's really tough to come up against large chains if you are offering the same product. So you have to find your niche. When a large chain store comes in, yes, some small businesses will go out of business. However, the ones who adapt to the change may actually realize an increase in sales. It's a matter of appealing to the community's sense of pride in place and really trying to determine what makes a community unique and going in that direction. There are so many resources out there. You don't have to be a Main Street community in order to adopt Main Street principles.
MB: What are some of the Main Street principles?
DK: Develop a group of like-minded citizens, whether they be business owners or not — people who have a pride in their community and want to see it succeed. Start small. It doesn't have to be that all of a sudden you have a whole block of businesses that are thriving. Plan events. Plan a banner program. You don't have to spend a lot of money on things. Come up with a sense of what makes your town unique, why are you living there. Then build on your successes. Every community has something unique about it. Listen to folks who have been there a long time, surround yourselves with not only them, but folks who are positive in their thinking, who think they can do something positive to make a change in their community.
MB: How do you change a culture of negativity?
DK: You're only as good as the people around you. Surrounding yourself with a bunch of naysayers isn't going to get you anywhere. Try to determine who is willing to move in the same direction as you want the community to move in. Have a contest to come up with a town logo or town motto. People get excited about that. Don't expect piles of money. Just try to come up with something that will generate enthusiasm amongst the community. They will rally.