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October 15, 2018 Focus: Midcoast & Downeast Maine

Development projects taking shape in Rockland, Boothbay, Walpole

Photo / Courtesy of CMCA The Center for Maine Contemporary Art, which opened in Rockland in 2016, has helped propel other arts-related investment.
Photo / Courtesy sea bags Sea Bags, which opened a store in Rockland this year, is one of several retailers that have opened in the downtown.
Rendering / Courtesy Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens is undergoing a multi-year upgrade, investing $50 milllion. The rendering shows a conservatory to be built in 2021.
Photo / Courtesy Darling Marine Center Darling Marine Center in Walpole plans a $3 million waterfront revitalization project that includes upgrades to its flowing seawater system, renovations of a seawater lab and replacement of the main pier.

Maine's Midcoast is much more than a summer tourist destination as evidenced by continued businesses openings in downtown Rockland, the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens' $50-million drive to become a year-round draw in Boothbay and a $3 million waterfront revitalization program at the Darling Marine Center in Walpole, part of a broader 10-year strategic plan. Here's a roundup of significant developments.

Rockland's downtown business boom

Anchored by the Farnsworth Art Museum and the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, Rockland's arts district is also a hub of new business activity with more than a dozen recent openings and more to come.

Main Street newcomers include North Beacon Oyster, hot yoga and juice bar venue Earth Flow + Fire, Sea Bags, Maine Mead Works and at least two galleries — Art Space and Stanhope & Spencer — that add to Rockland's arts-hub cachet. They will be soon be joined by Liberator Brewing Co. at 218 S. Main St.

“I always introduce myself as being from the arts and dining mecca of Maine,” says Gordon Page, executive director of Rockland Main Street Inc., a nonprofit that promotes downtown economic vitality. “We say that tongue in cheek, but there's so much going on in Rockland — people want to be there, spend time there and ultimately they want to spend money there.”

Why so much interest now?

Page chalks it up to constant successful churn in any downtown, like business owners retiring or moving on for family reasons — though in Rockland as soon as a Main Street site becomes available, there's a hearty appetite from eager tenants. He also admits there are at least a couple of smaller, out-of-the-way spaces that have been empty for a while and that affordable housing remains a challenge.

Doug Ericskon of Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate /The Masiello Group says he expects the trend to continue as long as rents stay close to $10 to $15 a square foot.

“They're trending up a little bit but not going up in great guns,” he says.

Rockland's cultural rise has been fairly recent, sparked by the renovation of the Farnsworth and the the Center for Maine Contemporary Art's move from Rockport in 2016 into a sleek new home designed by internationally acclaimed architect Toshiko Mori.

Both received financing from Coastal Enterprises Inc., which has provided loans to 34 businesses from Bath to Belfast that have created a total of 100 jobs in a variety of sectors.

“It's great to see that the region is diversifying and bringing dollars in from outside the region through tourism and sales of food outside the region,” says Betsy Biemann, CEO of CEI, which is based in Brunswick.

Back in Rockland, CMCA executive director Suzette McAvoy says she's noticed more off-season visitors “and a growing sense that it's more of a year-round economy we're trying to build.”

It's not just retailers that are ramping up, but also employers like Dream Local Digital, a marketing agency founded by Shannon Kinney in 2009. It's up to 39 employees and seeking to fill positions in several areas.

“In terms of our recruiting efforts, it is helpful for us to see Rockland growing,” says Kinney. “So many talented people are working to create community and resources for businesses, and it is facilitating growth.”

Botanical Gardens' $50M metamorphosis

After resolving a legal dispute with the town of Boothbay and property owners over its expansion plans, the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens is proceeding with a $50 million revamp to become a year-round destination.

“It's a big undertaking — big for Maine — but I think people really see the value beyond the educational mission that we have and the economic value of something like this,” says President and CEO William Cullina.

The expansion is expected to bring in up to 300,000 visitors a year, resulting in a projected annual economic impact of $100 million. The metamorphosis will happen in phases, the most recent of which were a new visitor center that opened in mid-May and native butterfly house that opened June 1.

Those will be followed by construction of a plant nursery and horticultural research center in 2019, along with an old homestead to be turned into an educational center with a focus on food and food security; a glass conservatory and gardens in 2021; and expansion of the educational campus in 2022-23 to include a new youth education building and a Center for Professional Horticulture.

Under a conservative timetable, Cullina expects the venue to be open year-round by 2021 or 2022.

Behind the scenes, Cullina says he sees great potential in growing sustainable, patented plants for wholesale distribution and ready for commercial launch in about 10 years. “I feel like we've barely tapped the potential.”

On the financing side, Cullina says about half the $50 million has been raised so far for the project, mainly from individuals and foundations, and that “we have a great roadmap for completing it.” But he said the final timeline also depends on funding and permitting.

The initiative comes more than decade after the gardens opened in June 2007, thanks to a group of residents who formed a grassroots organization.

Originally meant to accommodate 40,000 visitors a year, the now 295-acre site welcomed more than 190,000 last year and expects to crack 200,000 in 2018. The staff has also grown, from 10 full-timers and 12 part-time and seasonal workers to 60 full-timers and 120 part-time and seasonal workers at the peak season.

“Our goal with the year-round operation is to move more to 120 year-round,” Cullina said, noting that while recruitment and retention haven't been a problem, seasonal efforts can be tough.

“We try to pull from the local community pretty much exclusively,” he said. “That builds loyalty and people tend to come back.”

In the shorter term, the gardens are preparing for the end-of-year Gardens Aglow festival and plan to use a $50,000 grant from the Maine Office of Tourism to market the event in Hartford, Philadelphia, Boston and Baltimore.

Cullina said Gardens Aglow admission prices were slightly increased this year — to $14 for adults and $8 for kids — to reflect higher operating costs and three times the number of lights since the first year, adding: “We're still trying to keep it affordable comparable to a night out at the movies.”

Darling Marine Center's $3M waterfront makeover

East of the Damariscotta River shellfish belt, the Darling Marine Center in Walpole has been an active center of marine research and education since 1965.

Part of the University of Maine, the 200-acre campus includes two flowing seawater labs and a fleet of vessels.

As it looks ahead to the next 10 years, a strategic plan released in August calls for a $3 million waterfront revitalization project that includes upgrades to its flowing seawater system, renovating its oldest seawater laboratory, and replacing the nearly half-century-old main pier — a project expected to create 50 jobs at marine-related companies. The plan also calls for expanding undergraduate and graduate educational opportunities and forging stronger links with industry, government and community-based groups.

“We're thinking long-term and we're thinking big,” says Darling Marine Center Director Heather Leslie, in the midst of whittling down a 150-page master plan due out in coming months. “It's incredibly exciting.”

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