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Colby Horne, the owner of Colburn Shoe Store in downtown Belfast, was a kid growing up in this small midcoast city in the 1980s.
“Belfast was a blue-collar town,” he says of the period. “The majority of the jobs were the poultry plants. The bay wasn't so desirable because there was byproduct going into it. Things were a little tougher.”
Today, Belfast is the poster child for transformation, an attractive place to live, with year-round employment, a diverse and thriving business community and a growing reputation as a yachting and tourist destination.
But the city's new desirability has resulted in new challenges, chief among them lack of affordable housing. That's resulted in ongoing conversation as city officials and the wider community grapple with continued development into the future.
“We have a diverse economy and a diversity of employers,” says the city's economic development director, Thomas Kittredge. “We want to preserve that and support other types of employment so that we're not reliant on one economic sector. Right now, our concerns are housing, housing and housing. I think that, if we want to continue to grow, we should have more availability of housing across all levels — market-rate, affordable, subsidized. At some point, lack of housing will be an obstacle for businesses that are looking to grow, because it's not feasible for people to live here affordably.”
At Colburn Shoe Store, going back 185 years and owned the last 95 years by Horne's family, Colby Horne has had a ringside view of this transformation.
“It's been amazing,” he says. “Belfast has really put itself on the map. Instead of people driving up the coast, stopping in Camden, and continuing to Bar Harbor, people are stopping in Belfast.”
The city's past history as a mainstay in the poultry industry had problems of a different sort — pollution of the bay and a certain odor in the air, according to many.
“This was a dirty, industrial town,” recalls City Councilor Michael Hurley, a former Belfast mayor who, with his wife, owns the historic Colonial Theater, a downtown attraction. “Truckloads of rotting chicken guts and feet and beaks would come up the road, pouring this nasty goo out of the back of the truck onto the street. The gutters were lined with thick layers of chicken feathers. But there was a sense of community that people got from working in those places. They all knew each other; their kids knew each other.”
For several decades, the industry was a major employer, with processing plants, chicken farmers, and related professions, like truck drivers, sawdust providers, grain producers and carpenters. The crash of the industry in the late 1980s, as well as Belfast's sardine-processing and shoe-making factories in the same time period, left a ghost town, Hurley says.
“There were loads of empty stores,” he says. “If you saw two cars parked in the downtown on a Saturday afternoon, you would wonder what was going on.”
Things began to change with the arrival, in 1995, of Delaware-based credit-card company MBNA and its founder, Charles M. “Chuck” Cawley.
Cawley, who knew the midcoast area from summers there as a child and had a house in Camden, provided thousands of well-paying jobs and invested in numerous philanthropic initiatives. In Belfast, that included the purchase and clean-up of a deteriorated waterfront poultry processing plant and land for conversion to the Belfast Common, Steamboat Landing and Belfast Boathouse; construction of the University of Maine's Hutchinson Center; and donations to numerous other causes like Belfast's library and YMCA.
Over time, the city and various groups came up with ways to rebuild the city's economy. The city created an economic development director position, now held by Kittredge. Our Town Belfast, a downtown revitalization organization, was formed. Investment was also made in the Belfast Area Chamber of Commerce and the Belfast Creative Coalition.
With that was investment in infrastructure, service and attractions — parks, festivals and the arts — to build community, retain employees, attract employers, draw visitors and diversify the economy.
Since 2010, improvements include construction of the city's Harbor Walk and the Belfast Rail Trail, creating a network of trails that connect the downtown, waterfront and various preserves.
Businesses were taking note of Belfast's opportunities. After Cawley's retirement, Bank of America in 2006 bought MBNA's Belfast campus and a year later sold a chunk of it to athenahealth Inc., a provider of network-enabled services for hospital and ambulatory clients nationwide. Ashland, Mass.-based OnProcess Technology has also since moved to the campus.
On the waterfront, the most visible development was the 2010 arrival of Front Street Shipyard, which has invested $15 million to transform the derelict former Stinson Seafood site into a bustling working waterfront. Since 2011, the yard has brought in more than 1,100 boats up to 200 feet long, crews numbering into the dozens, and visitors from around the world, according to JB Turner, Front Street's president and general manager. Plans are underway for further expansion.
Belfast, says Turner, was perfect for the yard, offering deep water for larger vessels, flat property for easily moving and storing boats, weather protection and, for the boat crews and visitors who came to the yard, a vibrant community within walking distance for dining, shopping and entertainment.
Breanna Pinkham Bebb, executive director of Our Town Belfast, says Front Street has been key in supporting the community and the downtown in particular.
“[Front Street] continues to solidify our reputation of having a working waterfront, which is important to Belfast's sense of identity,” Bebb says. “And the customers of the shipyard are huge supporters of our local businesses: When they get their boats refitted, they are more than likely shopping, dining and staying downtown. Another strong positive regarding the shipyard has been that the yard was growing at the same time the Harbor Walk was being built. This walking and biking amenity goes right through the shipyard, so that makes visiting the waterfront here a uniquely interesting experience.”
Turner says it's all about synergy.
“We've received rave reviews from our international customers about the quality of restaurants, the kindness of local people, and the eclectic downtown businesses,” Turner wrote Mainebiz in an email. “I believe Belfast's charm has boosted our business as much as the shipyard has boosted that of local businesses.”
Kittredge calls the shipyard's influence “transformative.”
“The city of Belfast has received a lot of notice throughout the country and the world due to the shipyard,” says Kittredge. “People are coming to Belfast because of the shipyard.”
Call center, shipyard, restaurant and more — that kind of diversity is where Belfast wants to be, says Kittredge.
“We're fortunate to have a relatively diverse economy, companies like Front Street Shipyard that hark back to Maine boat repair and boat building traditions, the information-based companies like athenahealth, and the more traditional manufacturers like Ducktrap, McCrum and Mathews Brothers,” says Kittredge.
“Belfast welcomes a lot of tourists, but we are a working town,” says Hurley. “This is an honest-to-god full-spectrum economy.”
“We have had a continuing pace of businesses that are opening up,” Belfast Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Steve Ryan says of the downtown, citing openings, moves or expansions in recent years of a bagel café, bicycle shop, tea company, clay studio and various restaurants. “It's been constant growth and infusion of new faces, new energy, expansions and people doing well in businesses.”
Bebb says the goal of Our Town Belfast is to support year-round growth of the downtown business community, through initiatives like cooperative events and advertising campaigns.
“We've got to keep at it,” Bebb says. “The goal is to make sure it's a thriving town year-round and not just a summer community. It's a struggle. We have very few businesses that close in the winter, but they definitely make hay in the summer in order to be open the rest of the year. We want to give reasons to people to come to Belfast in January, February and March.”
The other side of the equation, all agree, is ensuring that employers and employees thrive. Currently, conversations are underway about affordable housing, identified as a top priority by the city council, with the planning board reviewing possible ordinance changes to encourage affordable housing options.
Workforce shortages are also a problem. “People want to do business here,” says Hurley. “We're so successful that employers are struggling to get new hires. Everywhere you drive around Belfast, you see 'now hiring' signs. It's a real challenge.”
At Rollie's restaurant, in business since 1972, owner Ryan Otis recently completed a seating expansion due to increased visitation and an increase in demand for his catering business. But he was unable to utilize the expansion this summer, except for special events, due to lack of staff.
“We're at 27 employees. To do what we need to do right, we should be at 32 or 33,” he says. “We're hurting for kitchen help more than anything.”
More business and community attractions also means more parking problems: It's another new issue on the table, with a balance to be struck between paving downtown land versus not having enough parking for visitors and locals alike, says the chamber's Ryan. “Is that just the price of success or is it a problem that will deter people? I don't think it's at that point yet, but it's another important discussion around how we can be visitor-friendly.”
More broadly, Belfast is seeking a balance between growth and character.
“How do you tell people who maybe want to build a hotel, 'No, we've got it exactly the way we want it,'” Hurley says. “You can't do that. Healthy cities grow. What can we do to make this a city that's going to grow, but will be what we want when it does grow? That's how we try to frame these conversations. I don't think anyone is saying, 'We don't want to grow.' I think they're all saying, 'How do we grow?' These are huge issues.”