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June 11, 2018
Focus: Small business

Retailers in Kennebec Valley 'making lemonade' out of disruptive road projects

Photo / Tim Greenway
Photo / Tim Greenway
Deb Fahy, executive director of Hallowell's Harlow Gallery, says the reconstruction of Water Street initially faced resistance. But now the business owner is among those that say “Hallowell will be more marketable at the end of this.”
Photo / Maureen Milliken
Diane Oliver, owner of Day’s Store in Belgrade, initially fought village road construction, but is now part of an effort that raised $725,000 to add enhancements to the work.
Photo / Tim Greenway
Lynn Irish, owner of Whippersnappers in downtown Hallowell, says the perception of Water Street construction is worse than the reality.
Map / Maine Department of transportation
In Belgrade, the green line indicates where road construction is planned. Much of the village funnels into an isthmus.

Belgrade Lakes business owners Diane Oliver and Liz Fontaine were against a major upgrade to the village's Main Street when it was proposed several years ago.

The village is on a narrow isthmus, squeezed between Great and Long ponds, and prolonged construction on the road, which is Route 27, would mean that summer business the town relies on would go somewhere else.

Things have changed.

"When you get lemons," Fontaine says. She trails off, but she doesn't have to finish it.

Belgrade business owners and residents are making lemonade, both figuratively and literally, as the project, which is scheduled to end sometime next year, begins.

Lemonade tables on Main Street this summer as a feel-good way to let people know the village is open for business are a small part of the massive effort to make the project work for local commerce.

In Hallowell, 18 miles south on Route 27, the situation is similar.

The project to tear up and raise Water Street, the main downtown street, began April 2.

"When they first proposed it, businesses were fighting it," says Lynn Irish, owner of Whippersnappers quilt shop and an at-large city councilor. "Then it became inevitable."

Heavy equipment and fencing line the historic half-mile downtown. One lane is open to traffic. Pedestrians may notice brightly painted murals on the fencing — Hallowell's version of Belgrade's lemonade.

In both communities, long-time resistance to disruptive road projects has evolved, and they now are embracing the possibilities for long-term economic sustainability that the projects are making possible.

In the short term, the small businesses that make up the core of both communities are finding ways to make do and keep people coming.

"There was a lot of resistance for a long time," says Deb Fahy, executive director of Hallowell's Harlow Gallery. "But you can't just not do something because it's inconvenient. Hallowell's going to come out looking beautiful, and so much is changing because of it for the better. Hallowell will be more marketable at the end of this."

Historic resistance

The current Hallowell Water Street upgrade has been discussed for nearly two decades, but the roots of the city's resistance go back to the 1970s.

In 1975, the state Department of Transportation proposed widening Water Street, which is U.S. Route 201 as well as Route 27, to four lanes, tearing down the buildings on one side of the street. The uproar prompted the state to cancel the plans.

In the ensuing years, the downtown's reputation for charm and as an antiques mecca grew. Many of the antique shops in the city of 2,600 that fronts a broad stretch of the Kennebec River are gone, but restaurants and bars have taken their place.

In 2012, the MDOT began a serious push for the current project. The street, which hadn't been upgraded in more than 100 years, has a steep center crown that causes safety, drainage and parking problems. Its brick sidewalks and granite curbing doesn't comply with the American with Disabilities Act and are rough and uneven.

The $5.89 million project, which comprises about half a mile, will be finished in November, with a break for a couple weeks in July when construction switches street sides.

The contractor, Sargent Corp., will finish paving and other detail work in the spring.

Initial city meetings about the project in 2013 were largely about how to stop it.

"A lot of people anticipated that no one would come downtown at all," says Fahy, of the Harlow Gallery.

In Belgrade, discussion of widening narrow Main Street began in 1998. A town committee at the time put together a streetscape plan for sidewalks and other enhancing elements, but residents and businesses strongly resisted.

By 2011, the 38 miles of Route 27 between Augusta and Farmington had been upgraded and widened with the exception of the 0.36-mile stretch that runs through the village.

That year, the town's streetscape committee updated the plan.

"The road is the heart of the village, and any alterations will have the potential to impact the village's character and goodwill," the report, as quoted in the Kennebec Journal in November 2011, said.

"There was a lot of public resistance from various groups," says Diane Oliver, whose family has owned Day's Store on Main Street for 60 years. Oliver was a vocal member of the opposition.

The $3.1 million project called for widening the road, adding parking, wider asphalt sidewalks and cutting down the giant maples that line the street.

The village, with the road, homes and businesses squeezed in between two lakes, is known for its historic charm. Oliver says the project was going to make it "a sea of asphalt."

Rechanneling the opposition

The state recognizes that businesses fear how they'll be affected by construction. It provides a 30-page document, "Digging Maine: Business Savvy Tips to Survive Construction," on its website that includes advice like businesses teaming up, gathering information from customers and developing a marketing plan.

In both Belgrade and Hallowell, several groups were already on it.

Belgrade selectmen initially approved the project in 2016, and gave final approval in February.

"There was going to be 22 feet of asphalt road and another five feet of asphalt sidewalk," Oliver says. "It was going to change the look of our village for the worse. So how could we mitigate that, change the focus?"

Oliver and Fontaine, the real estate broker, rechanneled their opposition into making the project work. They formed Friends of Belgrade Lakes Village, which has raised $725,000 to pay for brick sidewalks, pedestrian lighting, benches, bike racks and, ideally, a parking lot with a comfort station. Donors may sponsor a bench or light pole.

The Maine Family Foundation is the biggest contributor, with a $300,000 matching grant, but contributions, large and small, are from residents of the town, surrounding towns and summer residents.

The group's next phase is to find a site for the parking lot and comfort station.

The state agreed to not start the project until after Labor Day, and sandwich board signs have gone up in front of businesses in the village urging people to still visit once it begins. Utility work is being done in the meantime.

Business owners see the upside — the crumbling, narrow asphalt sidewalks are difficult to walk on or push a stroller, and the street is too narrow to walk in safely. The project will add 52 on-street parking spaces. On-street parking, which clogs the street in the summer, is now illegal because the road is so narrow.

The group has printed pamphlets, available at businesses, outlining the project, its schedule and seeking contributions toward the parking lot.

Fighting the perception

In Hallowell, the Down with the Crown group formed with the goal of keeping the city's downtown open for business through the end of construction.

The group has a page on the Hallowell Board of Trade website that lists committees and events for businesses and residents to take part in — more than 50 ongoing or possible events in all, as well as history, informational and marketing ideas. One of the most visible is the murals that hang on the construction fencing, an effort that will continue through the summer.

"We had literally over a hundred ideas," Fahy says. "But we can only do what we can do."

The board of trade effort includes a featured business of the week and also links to the state's project update page on its website.

"I think [the efforts are] having a positive effect," Fahy says. "Everything doesn't have to be a giant success. Everyone's thinking about it, and that's what's important."

Fahy and her business neighbor across the street, Irish of Whippersnappers, agree that the anticipation was worse than the reality.

Despite the fact that Water Street is a construction zone, there's parking on the side of the street still open to traffic, and spaces are always available.

"I asked businesses how they're doing," Irish says. "What they're fighting now is the perception. People think it's horrible down here, and it's not."

She says that lunch business is down at Water Street restaurants, though the nighttime bar scene is as lively as ever.

Both Harlow Gallery and Whippersnappers moved to bigger space on Water Street as the project was beginning. Business is way up at Irish's new location on the corner of Water and Winthrop streets.

Irish says business owners have told her that some customers are making a point of doing business on Water Street to show their support.

'A prime opportunity'

The city plans to put a parking lot behind buildings on the 100 block of the street after reaching an agreement with Linda Bean to move the historic Dummer House, which was behind the buildings. The two-story building, believed to be the oldest timber-framed structure in the city, was recently moved by Berwick-based Preservation Timber Framing by half a block, from Dummer Street to Second Street.

Bean, a board member of L.L. Bean and owner of other businesses, will continue to own the house, which is being renovated.

Irish says the completed project will offer businesses a "prime opportunity."

"It'll be a perfect time to open a business here," she says.

Irish, an at-large city council member, and other city and business leaders plan to generate more ideas with visits to Belfast, Brunswick, Rockland and others that have surging downtowns.

"We're doing the long-term approach to see how we can entice more people to our downtown," she says. "This is the perfect opportunity."

In Belgrade, there's optimism about the future as well.

Residents and business owners were dreading workers cutting down the village's giant maples. But once they did last month, many were pleased with the result, including improved views.

"I can see the mountains now," Oliver says.

Lori Yotides, who owns Spiro & Co., a Main Street food truck at the south end of the project, says business is up from last year since she opened in late May.

"People tell me they can see me now," Yotides says. "For me so far it's been great."

The state plans to replant some of the trees, though farther back from the road. There's also a private effort to turn a triangle of land at the south end of the project into a park.

Fontaine says that most are embracing the change. "We're trying to work together and promote it, just to work together to educate people as to what's happening," she says.

She recently renovated a Main Street building, which houses Lakehome Real Estate Group, one of several new businesses along the street.

She looks forward to the completed project, when the classic village will have even more of a "village look."

"It's going to be a great ending," she says. "I envision that this is going to be a wonderful walking village. It's going to be beautiful."

And until it's done, she says, there'll be lemonade.

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