ROCKLAND, Maine — Recession? What recession?
Main Street in Rockland hasn’t seen empty storefronts. The downtown is full of people each weekend, and instead of for-sale signs in the windows, shops have help-wanted signs.
A perfect — and intentional — storm of having business-friendly local government, adaptability, cheap rent, tax incentives for businesses and beautification projects all brewed together to allow the midcoast city to thrive in the economic downturn, according to Rodney Lynch, Rockland’s community development director.
Perhaps the primary cause of Rockland’s success has been its business diversity, he said. Once, the city’s focus was entirely on limestone quarries and fishing. It evolved into a fishing and manufacturing city, and as mills closed, Rockland — like most towns — hit hard times.
“We saw what was happening, so we readapted,” he said. “There was no other choice.”
Now Rockland is a little harder to peg. It is a service center with tourism, fishing, manufacturing, service jobs and more.
Rockland’s economy is not tied to any particular business — so no one loss can cut too deeply. The city, rather, is pulled forward by a multitude of shops of all breeds and sizes, from tiny boutiques to Wal-Mart.
Lynch said nonprofit groups have rallied together to help the city. Rockland Main Street Inc., for instance, helps ensure that the downtown stays bustling. If a company leaves, the nonprofit works to fill the vacant storefront.
“Rockland Main Street needs someone to watch out for it,” said Lorain Francis, the executive director and the organization’s lone employee.
In addition to helping Main Street property owners find tenants, helping stores market themselves and doling out advice on business issues, the nonprofit also has helped the city by securing grants. Francis said the nonprofit was an integral part of getting a Community Development Block Grant and a $25,000 grant for the Maine Department of Transportation to build pedestrian-safe crosswalks.
Grants and tax incentives are key parts of Rockland’s strategy.
Since 1998, Rockland has doled out more than $4 million in grants and loans. Typically, Rockland wins the grants from the state or federal government and then gives them to people and businesses that need the money. These give outside businesses incentives to come to the city with their tax dollars.
‘It looked nifty’
Kerry Altiero said he could not have gotten his Oak Street restaurant off the ground without two grants the city helped him secure.
Altiero owns Cafe Miranda, a cozy nighttime hot spot just off Main Street. Altiero was on a road trip, cruising through North Carolina, Vermont and eventually up the midcoast looking for a place to start his own restaurant in 1988. It was February, “I’m not saying I’m sane,” he said, but “it looked nifty.”
At that time, closed signs filled Main Street. This appealed to Altiero.
“This is probably affordable,” he recalled thinking. So he turned down a few job offers in New York City and took a spot as a chef in Tenants Harbor. “I drove to St. George and thought, ‘What am I doing?’ At 10 p.m. the only thing open was Domino’s.”
By 1993 Altiero saved enough to put an offer on an old gambling hall on Oak Street. His bid instantly was rejected as too low. The owners, though, were in a rush, and a few months later called him back and offered it to him.
“People said ‘Are you nuts?’ Now they say ‘What a visionary.’ I’m stupid enough, hardworking enough, lucky enough to pull this off,” Altiero said, sitting near his dog in a loft above his restaurant.
At the time when Cafe Miranda opened, there were three other restaurants in town. “Now there are a boatload,” he said.
Altiero isn’t afraid to take all the credit for Rockland’s culinary boom. “That’s what I kicked off — what I call the food renaissance of the midcoast,” he said.
While Altiero was relatively early to the scene, it was about 10 years ago when people really started taking notice of Rockland.
Maybe it was the cheap rent or maybe it was because that’s when the city hired a community development director who began to offer businesses incentives for moving to the city. Or perhaps it was because the city adopted its comprehensive plan in 2002.
The city benefits directly from some of its business incentives. One state program, Tax Increment Financing, allows the city to zone off areas of town and collect any newly generated tax funds over the course of the program. Three TIFs have been created; two for Fisher Engineering and another that covers Tillson Avenue. The latter is set to bring in $11 million to the city over the agreement’s lifetime.According to Lynch, the city will collect about $300,000 from one of the Fisher TIFs. That money then gets reinvested into the community through more grants and loans.
Because the TIFs also help reduce company taxes, it offers incentive for expanding businesses. Fisher, for instance, had to close one of its branches. They didn’t choose to close the Rockland bureau, and Lynch says it was the TIF that helped convince the business to stay put. As a result, the plow company expanded its Rockland presence.
‘A tough town’
Incentives like that weren’t around when David Hoch’s mother worked at a sewing machine with many other factory-employed women in the Van Baalen’s building — now the Breakwater Marketplace on Camden Street.
At that time, Rockland was a dangerous city.
“It was actually a tough town,” Hoch, a lifetime city resident, said in the Rockland Historical Society room of the library, where he works. “The Rockland reputation, and it came from the waterfront — all the people on schooners. The people on the boats were not the highest level of society. It was dangerous.”
Hoch, who said he has lived in the city “forever,” was the last president of the last lime company in Rockland. He told the crews of the Rockland-Rockport Lime Co. the day they would stop burning the kilns.
“It’s completely different,” he said of his hometown. “It’s gone from totally manufacturing to what it is now. I’ve seen it happen.”
Hoch cited the Farnsworth Art Museum as the nucleus of change.
“It brought art to town,” he said. “No one could have imagined that could have turned into what it is now. That was the major change.”
Frank Isganitis, co-owner of the LimeRock Inn on Limerock Street, said that culture shift has helped diversify the city’s industry, and change residents’ attitudes toward its past.
“It’s a personal and social circumstance,” he said. “People in a mill town look back at that mill and say, ‘If I only had that mill again, I could put food on the table,’ but those manufacturing jobs have sailed away — literally.”
As for Rockland’s economic future, Isganitis sees the city as just a few miles of track from being a train ride to anywhere. Plans to hook the seaside city into the national Amtrak grid are in the works. Rockland’s train now runs to Brunswick. Portland’s buses connect to Boston, and Boston’s to the world.
Bringing more potential customers from away to the city would be just fine with Heidi Vanorse.
From her Main Street dog boutique, Vanorse already enjoys the substantial customer base in the city’s downtown. But the lifelong Rockland resident remembers the tough times, too.
Shops such as her Loyal Biscuit, which sells collars, dog food, catnip pickles and puppy toys, didn’t exist when she was growing up on the seaside streets.
“For me, having lived here forever, it’s a much different downtown from when I grew up,” she said. “It was always a rough, blue-collar town, now it’s grown into a nice place to live and visit.”