April 30, 2018
Focus: Central & Western Maine

Towns find ways big and small to get people and retailers back downtown

Photo / Fred Field
Photo / Fred Field
Rhonda Irish, town manager of Wilton, has been an advocate for downtown redevelopment.
Photo / Fred Field
Life’s Perks Coffee co-owner Amy Ward relocated from Iowa to downtown Wilton after winning an entrepreneur contest that provided $15,000 in incentives to start the business there.

In December 2014, Wilton voters agreed to designate much of downtown "slum and blight" to qualify for a Community Development Block Grant.

Like many Maine towns, Wilton's industrial days were gone. Two major factories that had once employed hundreds of workers — Bass Shoe and Forster Manufacturing — had closed years before. The designated area included the partially demolished Forster mill on Depot Street. It also included dilapidated vacant houses and empty storefronts on Main Street.

Some residents balked at the designation.

"We needed to go there," says Town Manager Rhonda Irish. "Sometimes you have to take a step backwards to take a step forward."

The result was a $400,000 CDBG that paid for sidewalks, streetlights and other upgrades. It was the first of several grants the town has used to revitalize downtown.

Doug Ray, spokesman for the state Department of Economic and Community Development, said downtowns across the state are working to preserve their heritage and shore up their infrastructure. "The more that are able to reinvent themselves and revitalize, the stronger the state's economy."

Wilton's story is one of many in central and western Maine, as towns find ways big and small to get people and businesses back downtown. Many of these towns are "on the way to" somewhere and town officials want to give people a reason to stop and stay. Here is a sampling:

Norridgewock (Somerset County, on the Kennebec River)

Photos / Maureen Milliken
Photos / Maureen Milliken
Downtown Norridgewock is a mix of wood buildings and homes; Everett Tire added a car wash.

Population: 3,300

On the way to: Western mountain ski areas, Old Canada Road portion of U.S. Route 201 begins here. Major highways are U.S. Routes 2, 201A; routes 139, 8.

Historic economic driver: Timber, grist mills

Downtown revitalization highlight: New town square area from donated land; sign refresh paid for with Summit Natural Gas TIF money

'Pull off and have a sandwich'

Norridgewock, a town of 3,300 on the Kennebec River, is a place people drive through on their way somewhere else, says Town Manager Richard LaBelle.

Downtown, a three-quarter mile stretch of Main Street, is bookended by two five-way intersections on U.S. Route 2 and 201A, which lead to ski areas and the Moosehead Lake region.

"We want people to stop on their way there," says LaBelle. "Pull off and maybe have a sandwich and walk around.

"We have the ability to draw people, but what's the attraction?"

Recent efforts are aimed at making downtown a place people want to walk around, including drawing the 350 employees at the New Balance factory a block off north of Main Street.

Downtown is a small group of small wooden commercial businesses interspersed with houses, a Dunkin' Donuts at one end a bank at the other.

It's not a classic Maine downtown, but LaBelle believes it has potential.

Anne Emery thought so, too. In 2014, she bought a Main Street lot that still had the burned remains of two buildings from a 2003 fire. She cleaned the property up and donated it to the town for use as a town square.

It's been wired for electricity and a fir has been planted that will grow to be the town's Christmas tree.

LaBelle envisions people walking to it, eating lunch. or playing with their kids. The community can also gather for live music or a farmers market.

"It adds value to downtown," he says.

The square was dedicated the Alice E. Emery Town Square in December, the night before 30 businesses took part in the town's first holiday stroll.

Events like that add character to downtown that people may not have noticed before, LaBelle says. "It wasn't just about giving away prizes."

Many residents go to Skowhegan for services and shopping, and he doesn't expect that to change, but the town could use businesses like a laundromat, a hardware store, a place to buy fresh produce.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture last year awarded the town $5 million in grants and loans to upgrade the sewer system. He also hopes for a grant to help businesses spruce up facades and roofs. He'd like to see more investment in vacant buildings.

Downtown parallels the Kennebec River, which is wide and majestic as it turns to flow up to Skowhegan, but it's a block away from Main Street.

"We need to leverage the river more," he says.

A new fire station was built two years ago, freeing up a site for Everett Tire to build a car wash, a welcome new business.

LaBelle acknowledges that the efforts may seem small, but they make a difference and have a domino effect, spurring other redevelopment.

"We're a small town," he says. "We're not poor, but downtown's been decimated by fires and other issues. It's hard to come back.

"We want to be vibrant," he says. "We want people driving through instead of seeing an old mill town, to see a nice little downtown."

Rumford (Oxford County, on Androscoggin River)

Photo / Maureen Milliken
Photo / Maureen Milliken
In Rumford, Congress Street on "The Island" will undergo an infrastructure upgrade this year.

Population: 5,589

On the way to: New Hampshire White Mountains, Maine's western mountains. Major routes are U.S. Route 2, Route 17.

Historic economic driver: Paper mill

Downtown revitalization highlight: Application for $1 million Community Development Block Grant; storm water, infrastructure upgrades begin April 30

Simmering pot ready to boil

When Rumford Town Manager Linda-Jean Briggs interviewed for the job in early 2017, she told selectmen that she could feel the town simmering, and she wanted to be there when it boiled.

She says those first big bubbles are beginning to form.

Contractor Sargent Corp. will start a $4 million infrastructure upgrade beginning April 30, much of it on the Island, the Victorian downtown core surrounded by the Androscoggin River.

The 125-year-old stormwater system will be replaced, along with sidewalks, roadway and water lines. Fiber optic cable and natural gas lines will be added. The town is also switching its 600 street lights to LED bulbs.

The work will make downtown more appealing to developers, businesses and potential residents, Briggs says. "Those systems are not sexy," she says. "But they're integral to attracting businesses."

The work will be paid for with the help of a $400,000 federal grant, a $2 million bond issue and possibly by a Community Development Block Grant the town has applied for.

"We have to spend money to make money," she says.

The Catalyst paper mill in the center of town employs 600. The geography, hilly, with Androscoggin River rapids in the middle of town, is stunning. Several downtown buildings were added to the National Register of Historic Places last year.

But that doesn't make for a booming downtown.

Briggs cites an economic analysis done for Millinocket in 2013. "What they said is, 'Folks, you're fooling yourself if you think people are going to come in and plop down a lot of money. If you believe in yourselves, make the investment and the economic development will come in.'"

Revitalization plans began a few years before Briggs arrived, when residents formed a group that's now EnvisionRumford.

A group of residents is also developing the site of a former lumber yard for a Best Western Plus hotel, a quick walk up Falls Hill Road from the Island.

Community Concepts is offering low-interest loans for downtown business facade improvements.

Developers are asking Briggs about downtown.

She'd like to see boutique businesses, a coffee shop, antique shops, apartments and art-related development. She would love to see a craft brewery.

It all starts with the infrastructure upgrade.

"We're going to have a difficult time for the next seven or eight months," she says. "But once we get over the hurdles, we're going to have an absolutely magnificent downtown."

Skowhegan (Somerset County, on Kennebec River)

Photos / Maureen Milliken
Photos / Maureen Milliken
Kristina Cannon, executive director of Main Street Skowhegan, on the pedestrian bridge overlooking the future site of the Run of River whitewater park; Main Street; the town also hopes to enhance the riverbank.

Population: 8,417

On the way to: Maine's western mountains, Moosehead Lake Region. Major routes are U.S. routes 2, 201; state Route 150, 151.

Historic economic driver: Paper, lumber mills

Downtown revitalization highlight: Planned $4.5 million Run of River whitewater park

Rolling on the river

When Amber Lambke and Michael Scholz bought the former county jail in downtown Skowhegan in 2009, it kicked off the renaissance, says Kristina Cannon, executive director of Main Street Skowhegan.

The building is now the Somerset Grist Mill, producing stone-ground grains. The pair also founded the Kneading Conference, which has given the town an identity as a local food hub, Cannon says.

Since then, new ways to attract people keep coming, including the Skowhegan Craft Brew Festival, held in September, and now in its third year and likely to attract as many as 30 brewers.

She says the Kneading Conference and brew fest bring "tons of people from out of town, from out of state."

The town also scored the 2018 Moose Lottery after Selectman Soren Siren saw the economic boost Bethel got when it hosted it. The lottery, held by the state Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, is for those hoping to be among the 2,000 who get a moose hunting permit.

Main Street Skowhegan is building it into a three day Moose Fest, with help from a $9,500 Maine Tourism grant. The weekend will include a concert and a feast featuring wild game and craft beer.

But the biggest is yet to come.

The town has been working on developing a $4.9 million whitewater kayak park, Run of River, in the Kennebec Gorge, which runs behind Main Street's buildings.

Cannon says only 20% of the people a white water park draws will actually use it. "The rest come to watch," she says. They also eat in local restaurants, shop and stay in local accommodations.

The economic benefits of the park were initially a tough sell, and in some ways still are.

"There are still people who are skeptical, but once we get the features in the river, people are going to to get the idea," she says. "They need a tangible vision, otherwise it's hard to get their head around. I think it's something people have never seen before and that's OK, we get that."

Helping was a 2016 economic impact study that estimates the park will generate $6 million in revenue in its first year, and up to $19 million in its 10th; create up to 171 jobs by the 10th year; generate a range of $270,000 to $480,000 in property tax revenues by its 10th year. State tax revenues could grow to a range of $364,000 to $656,000 a year.

Fundraising for the park begins soon.

"People are beginning to realize that we have so much more to offer," says Cannon. "That we're so much more than just an industrial town."

Wilton (Franklin County)

Photos / Maureen Milliken
Photos / Maureen Milliken
In Wilton, new businesses have opened downtown and the former Bass shoe factory is occupied; the Western Maine Play Museum on Main Street is due to open this summer.

Population: 3,939

On the way to: Maine's western mountains and High Peaks region. Major routes are U.S. Route 2, state routes 4, 156.

Historic economic driver: Shoe, woolen factories

Downtown revitalization highlight: CDBG, other grants, have updated infrastructure, storefronts and lured new businesses

'It's come together'

In Wilton, the effort that began with the "slum and blight" designation generated results.

In the last 18 months, eight businesses have opened, including a coffee shop, bakery and ice cream shop.

Other new development includes the Wilton Play Museum, scheduled to open downtown this year.

The Forster mill is coming down after a long battle, and Rhonda Irish, the town manager, says the possibilities for development range from housing to businesses.

Vacant dilapidated buildings are outnumbered by brightly painted storefronts.

Apartments were recently completed in the sprawling former Bass shoe factory, which anchors downtown.

Issues remain — there's a need for senior housing and businesses like daycare and maybe a craft brewery. The new infrastructure has to be kept up.

"But it's come together faster than I thought," Irish says.

The key was having a strategy. "It was very very very important to do it in stages with the community," she says. "It was very important to plan, but then go forward with it and not put it on a shelf."

The town wasn't shy about seeking help from places like the Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments, the Franklin County Development Council.

Public meetings had good turnouts, a lot of energy and residents made tough decisions.

She said while some long-time residents find it hard to let go of the image of Wilton in its heyday, the town's evolution is positive.

"It's not the Wilton from a long time ago," she says. "But it's a Wilton younger generations will remember as a place of opportunity for them, a place they could start a business and raise their family."


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