ORONO, Maine — Downtown businesses are bound and determined to change. They don’t feel they’re getting the attention or affection they deserve from residents, university students or people from out of town. They’ve joined forces and made up their minds to get pretty and get noticed.
More than a dozen shops, restaurants and even homeowners have signed commitments to upgrade their facades. Projects range from new metal roofing on Woodman’s Bar and Grill to a fresh coat of paint at Margaritas. In all, owners have promised to spend more than $200,000 to spruce up downtown Orono, with commitments ranging from $1,500 to $50,000.
Leading the effort to improve the downtown’s look is the Orono Village Association, a group of businesses led by Michele Goldman, owner of Fiberphilia on Mill Street.
“We were all very surprised, not by just how much business owners were willing to put up, but how many of them were up for it,” Goldman said, taking a sip from her morning coffee at Verve, located at the corner of Main and Mill streets. “Every one of them is incredibly invested in improving the downtown.“
Businesses that signed on to upgrade their buildings sat down with an architect from WBRC Architects and Engineers of Bangor earlier this year to discuss how much money they could put toward facade improvements and what things they could accomplish with that money.
The town paid about $13,000 plus fees for WBRC’s work on the proposals.
Woodman’s owners Abe and Heather Furth and their business partner, Mark Horton, told architects they could foot $50,000 for projects on the Main Street restaurant’s exterior.
“It’s one of the most visible buildings in downtown,” said Abe Furth. “We live in Orono, and we love Orono, so anything we can do to help the downtown, we’ll do.”
Architects’ plans suggested a new metal roof, gables above the windows, a new covered entrance and digging up pavement around the base of the building to open up more green space.
“Financing improvements is like financing a business: It’s not a negative thing, it’s just a necessary thing,” Abe Furth said.
Furth and his wife, Heather, also own Verve, a coffee shop that opened two years ago on the other side of Main Street. Goldman commended the young store, calling it the type of shop that will draw more people down Mill Street to other businesses that she hopes will see a lot more foot traffic the more the area improves.
Park’s Hardware on Mill Street, an institution in Orono since 1892, will pay more than $46,000 to build a roofed second-story porch and new entrance, install clapboard siding and a new aluminum storefront, among other projects.
The plan for Pat’s Pizza, one of Orono’s best-known eateries, calls for work on the roof cornice, a new horizontal sign band and an aluminum storefront with wood panels at the bottom.
Jim Rose, owner of Rose Bike on Pine Street for 25 years, committed to spending $7,500 this year, but said he would spend about $45,000 over several years.
The work includes a new horizontal sign over the door, new windows and storefront lighting, all designed to make the shop look more like a business and less like a home, “but still keep with the character of the neighborhood,” Rose said.
“It’s a lot — more than I can afford,” he said. “But it feels like downtown Orono is taking a huge leap forward from how things have been for years.”
Rose said part of the reason he was willing to make such a commitment was the chance that, if a state grant comes through, he could have twice as much money to play with this year.
On July 1, the town and the Orono Village Association sent in an application for a Communities for Maine’s Future grant from the state Department of Economic and Community Development.
In June 2010, voters approved a nearly $24 million bond initiative. Communities for Maine’s Future will dole out nearly $3.5 million of that to help revitalize downtowns.
If Orono gets the grant, the state will match each business’s commitment, doubling the amount they can spend on facade upgrades, according to Evan Richert, Orono’s town planner and former State Planning Office director under Gov. Angus King.
“We are one of many communities competing for these funds,” Richert said.
There is no guarantee Orono will get the grant, a prospect that worries some business owners but doesn’t dissuade them from moving forward.
“[The grant] is not going to make or break us,” Abe Furth said. “It would just be a huge help.”
If the grant fell through and Orono didn’t get the matching funds it is hoping for, businesses still would make the most of the changes, just at a slower pace and cutting some of the more expensive projects.
“Each property has leeway,” Richert said. He stressed that no one is being forced to make all the suggested facade improvements, but they are expected to do some of the work they committed to, even if the grant falls through.
Grant recipients should be announced by the end of the month.
While the majority of businesses in the downtown district chose to take part, a few properties passed on the town and village association’s offer to step on board.
Chad Bradbury of KC Management in Orono manages properties downtown for two separate owners — the one-story building at 19 Mill St., which houses The Roost, Judy’s Scrappin & Stampin and Black Bear Brewery, and 44 Main St., home to Fringe Hair Salon.
He signed on for $5,000 in upgrades to the hair salon facade because “it’s right on the main drag there,” he said, but decided not to commit to any work on the Mill Street building.
“It was just way too expensive,” Bradbury said.
WBRC proposed changes to the buildings that would have cost around $114,000, Bradbury said, but he already had put too much money into the buildings over the past few years to afford anything close to that.
Three years ago, he bought a new furnace for the Mill Street property, which is still being paid off. Now he’s trying to convert the building to natural gas heat, a $3,500 project, he said.
He said the Main Street property would get some new paint and shutters, but that’s about all he can afford for now.
“It’s a great program and I hope they can get a lot done,” he said. “It just wasn’t a great time for us to participate.”