Belfast starts downtown revitalization process

Posted May 28, 2010, at 11:19 p.m.

BELFAST, Maine — Larraine Brown dreams of a day in the near future when the city’s storefronts are filled and the downtown truly is the “beating and vital heart” of the community.

Now, thanks to the news that Belfast will officially become part of the Maine Downtown Network program, Brown and others hope that day will come sooner rather than later.

“This is for all of Belfast,” the interim project manager of the community group “Our Town Belfast” said Friday afternoon. “If your heart is vital, it affects your limbs, your eyes, everything. We are interested in the vitality of the entire community.”

The Maine Downtown Network was launched last year by the nonprofit Maine Development Foundation for communities just beginning their downtown revitalization efforts or hoping to go on to achieve Main Street Maine status.

Unlike the participants in the Main Street Maine downtown development program, Maine Downtown Network communities are not required to have paid staff members, but still must have a central business district, make an organized effort, detail a sustainable budget and give a pledge of commitment to the project.

To be part of the Maine Downtown Network, communities like Belfast must adopt what’s called the “Main Street Four-Point Approach,” an economic development tool that has been used in more than 2,200 communities across the country, according to Roxanne Eflin of the Maine Development Foundation.

The four points are organization, promotion, design and economic restructuring, and are meant to help communities leverage local assets with the goal of revitalization.

Belfast and five other towns and cities next week will join Bucksport, Presque Isle, Millinocket, Augusta, Norway and Lisbon as a Maine Downtown Network community.

“Inclusion in the network means that we’ll be working with their organization and their community leaders to help them with downtown revitalization challenges,” Eflin said. “It’s very exciting to see what Belfast is doing and how they’re coming. … For a place like Belfast, with such great character — and characters — down-town, they are really right for our approach.”

Eflin said the official announcement of the new communities joining the network will be made on Friday during the Revitalizing Maine Communities 2010 conference in Augusta.

Nearly 40 Belfast residents didn’t wait for the announcement but met Thursday evening at Bay Wrap to start brainstorming ideas for their city. People talked about ways to fill the empty storefronts, bring new business to town and put more emphasis on the port. Other ideas included finding ways to use the footbridge, making nature walks, having more children’s activities and creating a community garden downtown.

“Our initial goal in this is to boost the downtown businesses,” said Anne Saggese, the owner of the home baking business Sweet Henry’s. “As great as they look, they are struggling. They need support.”

Participating in the Maine Downtown Network program will help, she and Brown said.

The Our Town Belfast group already has four committees working toward the program goals, but is still recruiting more participants, Brown said.

“The great thing is, we’re following a plan that’s tried and true,” she said.

For information or to participate in Our Town Belfast, call Larraine Brown at 323-2747. For information about the Maine Downtown Network, go to www.mdf.org

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