New year, new changes for Belfast economy

First Light Gallery occupied this storefront which now available for rent on 92 High Street in Belfast. It is one of several vacant storefronts in downtown Belfast. Relfected in the window are Main St. storefronts and Cherie Kruskop of Belfast who was walking by. " It's sad that they [First Light Gallery] are gone [from this location]. They had a lot of jewelry in there," said Kruskop who also makes jewelry. (Bangor Daily News/John Clarke Russ)
First Light Gallery occupied this storefront which now available for rent on 92 High Street in Belfast. It is one of several vacant storefronts in downtown Belfast. Relfected in the window are Main St. storefronts and Cherie Kruskop of Belfast who was walking by. " It's sad that they [First Light Gallery] are gone [from this location]. They had a lot of jewelry in there," said Kruskop who also makes jewelry. (Bangor Daily News/John Clarke Russ)
Posted Jan. 08, 2011, at 3:25 p.m.

BELFAST, Maine — Although the new year has brought another round of small-business closures in downtown Belfast, city officials said last week they’re hoping to hear a major piece of good economic news soon.

City Manager Joe Slocum said Tuesday that there are two potential buyers for Stinson Seafood, the crumbling sardine processing plant that occupies a prime slice of the waterfront. The city has been working with the potential buyers since June, with the city planner and city attorney both involved in the sale discussions, he said.

“We’re hoping it will pan out,” he said, without giving specifics about the prospective buyers. “I think it’s fair to say we’ve got some very serious interest here. It’s not casual. It’s real.”

That property now is owned by development company Belfast Bridge LLC, but the city is involved with the sales discussions because of a “very unique zoning situation,” Slocum said.

The city is also involved with the property because of ongoing litigation.

In June, city attorney Bill Kelly filed two lawsuits against the company, which include demands that Belfast be authorized to raze one of the dilapidated plant buildings and also be paid $300,000 for its failure to construct a new commercial fisherman’s dock.

Belfast Bridge LLC began work on the property in the fall of 2005 to convert it into a $12 million, luxury, 21-unit, waterfront condominium development on Belfast Harbor named Wakeag Landing. Development efforts did not get very far before work ceased on the project, officials have said.

Slocum said that the city is doing its best to promote economic development.

“It really is like going fishing,” he said. “At the end of the day, you might catch something and you might not. You can bring a fish all the way up to the boat and still lose it. … You go fishing a lot before you catch a good fish.”

He said that if an offer is made and accepted, the city will benefit in more than one way.

“That will resolve the underlying litigation,” he said. “We’re kind of at the end of our ropes.”

The potential sale of Stinson Seafood, and also the recent sale of the mostly vacant Em Bee Cleaners building on Church Street to a California environmental cleanup firm, provide reason for optimism, according to the city manager.

That’s the case despite new empty storefronts around town, he said, which add even more for-rent signs to a Belfast streetscape that already had quite a few.

“Empty storefronts is not the only economy,” he said, adding that the current national economic climate is “challenging.”

“I think there are some successes. There’s an ebb and flow,” Slocum said.

Businesses that closed up shop for good at the end of the year include the First Light Gallery on High Street and Speaking Roses of Maine flower and gift shop on Main Street.

Roots & Tendrils, an innovative music and art gallery on Cross Street that has showcased many bands and artists since its opening in June 2009, will close at the end of January. Owners Meg and Bub Fournier said in an e-mail that they are considering the closure to be a break rather than the end. They said they would focus on the 2011 Belfast Free Range Music Festival.

“Unfortunately, while Roots & Tendrils has been successful in many areas, there are a few key areas in which we’ve hit a wall,” they wrote Friday. “Roots & Tendrils is growing and we are not able to make the changes needed to make that growth successful in our current space and do not have the resources to start from scratch in another location.”

Dan Bennett, a jewelry maker who had been part of the First Light Gallery’s collective of artists, said that he would be displaying his works at the Parent Gallery on Main Street where he has consolidated with photographer Neal Parent to “make a stronger unit.”

“I think that’s what’s happening with some galleries,” Bennett said Saturday, adding that Belfast has an abundance of art galleries for a community its size. “People are saying, ‘I can’t do it,’ or ‘don’t want to do it on my own.’”

Belfast has busy summers but slow winters, he said.

“It’s hard for the arts. It always has been,” Bennett said. “The people that are in it for the long run find ways of coping.”

To him, the Belfast economy seems more up-and-coming than arrived — a contrast to Rockland, where Bennett also sells his silver-and-tourmaline jewelry.

“Rockland has a very strong art community and has also gone after monies that are out there,” he said. “I think Belfast has caught on to that. That could make some changes.”

Thomas Kittredge, the city’s new economic development director, said that the economic restructuring committee of downtown group Our Town Belfast will be addressing the empty storefronts downtown.

“While it’s unfortunate that any particular business may go out of business, some turnover is expected in the retail economy,” he said. “Not all businesses may succeed. I think our downtown is doing pretty well, considering the economy.”

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