BELFAST, Maine — In fancy cursive script, an invitation addressed to the “Class of 2011” advertises a welcome ceremony and ribbon cutting for all the new or expanded businesses that have come to Belfast in the last year.
It’s an event worthy of some fanfare, according to city councilor and local businessman Mike Hurley, who has been keeping a running list of all the newcomers to Belfast.
So far, he’s counted 42 businesses that have opened or expanded in Belfast, a community of about 7,000 people. From a computer repair shop to take-out Mexican food, from underwear shop City Drawers to two bookstores on Main Street, the little city by the bay is suddenly popping.
“When you start adding up all these things, it’s a lot,” Hurley said Tuesday. “There’s a lot of excitement. For whatever reason, there’s a feeling of optimism among businesses. We hope it translates into reality.”
One reason for the optimism that was cited by several people is the new Front Street Shipyard, a major endeavor that has taken shape at breakneck speed in crumbling sardine processing buildings at the waterfront.
“I think the word is getting out about Belfast, not only as a destination for tourism but also new business locations,” said Jack Driscoll, the executive director of the Belfast Area Chamber of Commerce. “Buzz started a few years ago, but it grew dramatically with the Front Street Shipyard coming in. When you talk to people on the street, there’s a real energy and excitement about the shipyard and what it will mean to the area.”
Hurley said some of the new businesses, including Stephens and Waring Marine Architects, are marine-related. Others are just good fits for the time and place say the entrepreneurs who have started them.
Dee Bielenberg’s City Drawers is the city’s first dedicated underwear shop in years. It opened last Friday in a lovingly restored Main Street storefront that most recently was home to the Fertile Mind bookstore. She caters to men, women and children with a selection of undergarments, socks, yoga clothes, bathing suits and more in all kinds of fabrics and price ranges.
“If you’re not in diapers, I can help you out,” Bielenberg said.
The shop’s inspiration came from debates that occurred about a decade ago on whether to allow big-box retail stores in Belfast. At that time, people in favor of those stores pointed out that it was hard to find underwear to purchase in Belfast.
“People say it was a need,” she said.
Bielenberg, who owns the building and also has a background in apparel, began renovating in January, “And it snowballed from there,” she said.
Another new business, High Street Market, has been open for two weeks. It is a spic-and-span convenience store located in a small space on High Street, and co-owner Natasha Littlefield said that it caters to the locals.
A lot of people who live downtown don’t have cars, she said, and appreciate having a place to purchase things like milk, snacks and beer right downtown until 9 p.m. most days and 1 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights.
“So far it’s great,” she said of business. “There has been a lot of positive [feedback] from the locals.”
Other new businesses include Fiddle Head Artisan Supply, a J.C. Penney catalogue store, the Loyal Biscuit, a pet supplies and dog washing place, and several new restaurants. One restaurant, Traci’s Diner, will offer food all night long on Friday and Saturday.
According to Hurley, all these businesses are helping jump-start the local economy even before they open, thanks to more work for people like carpenters, electricians and sign makers.
“I think it’s really exciting,” he said. “Three years ago, I was at the Belfast City Council, telling them there are 25 empty stores downtown.”
That number has decreased to two, he said. Additionally, he estimates that the businesses likely employ a couple hundred people altogether.
“In the face of the Great Recession, we’ve managed to do something really special, really different, in Belfast,” Hurley said, attributing the positive change to the city’s focus on economic revitalization. “This isn’t by accident, this development. We’ve been working for 30 years to make Belfast better — and it’s paid off.”
Now, that hard work is helping to lure all those entrepreneurs to town.
“When stuff starts to happen, often people want to get in on it,” Hurley said. “It’s like going to a dance. You can hang out by the wall, but when you see other people dancing, you want to dance.”
The City of Belfast, Our Town Belfast and the Belfast Area Chamber of Commerce will host a welcome and ribbon cutting for all new businesses at 8 a.m. Wednesday, June 29, at Bay Wrap on Main Street. All are welcome.