Saving Maine’s Downtowns

Posted March 26, 2009, at 10:16 p.m.

Maine has done a remarkable job preserving coastal and forest lands for future generations to enjoy. The Land for Maine’s Future program has had phenomenal success winning voter approval for borrowing money for these land purchases. A variation on the idea, Communities for Maine’s Future, would seek $27 million in bond funding to shore up another critical part of Maine’s quality-of-life assets — its historic downtowns.

The idea was created by the anti-sprawl group GrowSmart Maine. Sen. Elizabeth Mitchell, D-Vassalboro, and Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, are primary sponsors of a bill to implement the plan. Since Ms. Mitchell is Senate president and Rep. Rotundo co-chairs the Appropriations Committee, the bill has a better-than-average chance of winning legislative approval. Rep. Sawin Millett, R-Waterford, a former state finance commissioner and the ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee, also is a sponsor.

If approved by the Legislature and then the voting public, $25 million would be set aside for grants for downtown projects. The competitive grants would be awarded by a panel, just as land purchases through the Land for Maine’s Future program are approved by a board. Requests would likely be measured against goals such as: preserving historic buildings, improving pedestrian and vehicle access for downtowns, marketing the many unused and underused buildings, improving downtown landscapes and creating business incubators.

If the grants are applied effectively, sprawl will be curtailed, the charm of many of Maine’s downtowns will be enhanced and downtowns will become more vibrant.

Under the concept, $2 million would be set aside for a revolving fund for nonprofits to purchase historic properties that in turn could be sold to developers.

The concept is grounded in solid thinking about the elements on which Maine can base its economic development. The national Brookings Institution in 2006 studied Maine and concluded that polishing the state’s architecturally attractive and river- or ocean-oriented downtowns would pay economic dividends.

Maine’s quality of life, itself an established economic asset, is tied to its quality of place. In the digital age, many businesses can locate anywhere, and Maine is blessed in that it does not have the bland, faceless character of Anywhere, USA. Preserving and polishing that special character is worthy of investment.

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