MACHIAS, Maine — Members of the Maine Downtown Center’s advisory board spent six hours in Machias on Wednesday taking an inventory of the downtown area and making suggestions for revitalization.
The results were mixed but productive.
The group had many suggestions and ideas, ranging from quick fixes — such as pulling weeds in the sidewalks and adding signs for parking — to more intense efforts — such as working with the owners of empty buildings to fill them.
They praised the enthusiasm of the Machias Downtown Revitalization Committee and said the town had enormous potential.
But they also frankly described Machias’ downtown as shabby and unkempt.
“It looks like your grandmother’s house after she died and it was left vacant for 10 years,” advisory board member Ken Young of Hallowell said. “You need to spruce it up. Pull the weeds. Sweep the dirt off the bridge. There are so many places that you can make an immediate and important difference.”
Bill King of Bath, another advisory member, said Machias needs to capitalize on the number of people that visit the shiretown.
“The numbers of people here are incredible,” King said. “We had dinner last night and I couldn’t believe the crowds in the restaurants on a Tuesday night.”
King also said leadership was important. “[Town Manager] Chris [Loughlin] can’t do it all,” he said.
Getting both local business owners and the University of Maine leadership involved will be vital to the process of change, King said.
“We found here a lot of passion and a desire for change,” Young said. “But you need a clear definition of what the downtown is and a focus. Some of these buildings have lots of potential.”
Future investors, however, may not be willing to sink money into the downtown because of a lack of design standards, Young said.
“If I come to town with a bulging wallet, I would be reluctant to invest downtown because of the variables. I don’t know if a great pizza shop or a strip joint could come in next door,” he said.
Suggestions by both the advisory board and local committee members included creating signs for a “museum in the streets” to play up Machias’ important historical assets, working with existing business owners to beautify Main Street, seeking grants to redo Overlook Park, installing better signage, and removing the traffic nodes on Main Street that limit parking.
Several committee members said that small, noticeable projects need to be completed immediately to show the community that the committee is involved and serious, and to generate interest.
Interest has flagged, the local panel members said, after the topic has been talked about for decades with very little change or action.
Roxanne Eflin, Maine Downtown Center’s director, said that the committee needs to find out who the key players in town are, such as at the banks and the university, and get the leaders involved. “Enfold them in the downtown process,” she said. “Be aggressive.”
King said that downtown revitalization is like a three-legged stool. Community members and nonprofit organizations are one leg, the town is the second leg, and the businesses and landlords are the third.
“All three legs need to be part of the solution,” he said. “Get people together that have influence. Talk and learn from each other. Talk about business conditions and learn from each other.”
Haines said it was important that the town government get involved. “The business community needs to know that the town is listening to their concerns,” she said.
As the group walked throughout the downtown, ideas and strategies were traded. Suggestions were made and new issues raised.
King said it was critical for committee members to be the catalysts for changing the attitude in Machias. “You need to get up and do things,” he said.
“Many of you may be interested in large changes quickly but that is not going to happen,” Young added. “Change will come in increments. It is a process.”
Eflin said that Machias is one of 13 Maine towns chosen for the Maine Downtown Network this year. Over the past nine years, $114.8 million has been reinvested in Maine’s downtowns, she said. The result has been 180 new businesses, 778 new jobs and 431 building rehabilitations.
“Now it is Machias’ turn to create a quality of place,” she said.
From Wednesday’s visit, Eflin explained, the center will create an assessment to be used as a blueprint by the local committee. The report should be ready in about six weeks, she said. “This report should provide an overview for a work plan,” she said.
The center will follow up with two more visits to Machias this year.
The next meeting of the Machias Revitalization Committee is a breakfast gathering at Helen’s Restaurant at 7 a.m. Friday, Sept. 10. Anyone interested is invited to attend.