Gardiner banks on culture to help Water Street thrive

A postcard of Water Street in Gardiner from the 1920s.
A postcard of Water Street in Gardiner from the 1920s.
By Mechele Cooper, Kennebec Journal
Posted Sept. 20, 2011, at 4:26 a.m.

GARDINER, Maine — Historic Water Street has seen businesses come and go over the years.

“Downtowns are business incubators by nature,” said Nate Rudy, Gardiner’s new director of economic and community development. “Some start and don’t make it. Some do. It’s a natural cycle for downtowns.”

That cycle has sped up lately, as businesses continue to come and go in a near constant churn, especially downtown.

But that’s not to say there aren’t long standing service providers, law firms, shops, and restaurants like A1 Dinner that has been around for more than a decade.

Patrick Wright, executive director of Gardiner Main Street, said downtown is the commercial and cultural hub of the community.

He said there are many factors that go into whether a downtown business is ultimately sustainable.

“Every business comes with its own strengths and weaknesses, and these factors, in addition to market factors, play into the success of a business,” he said.

“Every business comes with its own strengths and weaknesses, and these factors, in addition to market factors, play into the success of a business,” he said.

With state and federal budget problems affecting Gardiner’s downtown initiatives, officials are looking for ways to boost economic growth downtown and in other areas of the city.

City efforts

Last year, the city hired a marketing company and launched a new website — www.libbyhillbusinesspark.com — to help attract tenants to its struggling Libby Hill Business Park.

At the time, the city hadn’t sold any of the 12 lots in the Phase ll expansion and had three of the original 16 lots still available.

Other efforts include a July meeting with local merchants in July for a roundtable discussion on ways to market their businesses and the Gardiner Growth Initiative launched eight months ago with a $125,000 matching contribution from The Bank of Maine.

Wright said the initiative is a three pronged approach: an incentive program to entice businesses in the form of a forgivable loan program; a strategy that includes branding and reaching out to property brokers and others about business opportunities in Gardiner; and capitalizing on the growth of the “creative economy” by supporting Johnson Hall Performing Arts Center.

“Case studies throughout the country have shown that commerce follows culture,” Wright said, “making this type of investment a very real economic driver.”

City Manager Scott Morelli said towns that invest in restoring historical cultural centers attract innovative business entrepreneurs and creative visionaries — the types who pursue upscale businesses from clothing stores to bakeries that offer international flavors and carry-out meals for families on the go.

Communities with live music venues, active stages, summer street fairs and eclectic neighborhoods exemplify special qualities of living, Wright said.

This push for economic development is coming at a good time: The city recently suffered some significant business losses, including some familiar mainstays.

Backward, forward

Associated Grocers of Maine closed its doors this year in an abrupt bankruptcy, idling more than 150 workers. Village Candle Inc. decided not to follow through on plans to expand its operations in South Gardiner when neighbors complained of odors.

The Bank of Maine, formerly Savings Bank of Maine and Gardiner Savings Institution, expanded its presence in Portland and transferred three of its executives from its offices on Water Street in Gardiner.

But CEO John Everets has said there are no plans for moving the executive offices in Gardiner.

“We have substantial operations in Gardiner and are going to remain in Gardiner,” Everets said.

The bank has had its headquarters in Gardiner for 177 years.

Two mainstays recently lost include A1 To Go Community Market & Cafe at the intersection of Bridge and Water streets; and Modabella, a woman’s clothing store, at 343 Water St.

In almost every case, however, city officials are hitting back with an answer.

Pine State Trading Co. recently bought Associated Grocers’ distribution property in Gardiner, so Morelli said that is hopeful.

Morelli said the A1 To Go and Modabella storefronts will soon be filled: Amy Rees and her husband, Robert Lash, of Gardiner, plan to open another cafe in the A1 To Go space; and TL’s Wickedlicious, a bakery and takeout, opened early this month at 343 Water St.

“We never like to see businesses leave, but we’ve been fortunate here,” Morelli said. “Every time one leaves, one comes in to replace it. When we lose a business, it’s an opportunity to attract the kind of businesses we want. Gardiner’s moving into a creative economy. Look at Monkitree (museum and art gallery) for example. We can actually shape what we want Gardiner to look like.”

Solutions, advantages

Rees said she and her husband fell in love with Gardiner because of the “beautiful” buildings and downtown and “the warm welcoming feeling we got from the people.”

She said it’s a perfect location for their cafe, with 19,000 cars driving by every day.

“We want to make this a destination that, once people try it, they’ll be back again and bring their friends with them,” she said.

But the 19,000 cars that pass by Rees’ cafe along Bridge Street also bypass Water Street, which is one-way.

Some business owners — including Lisa Liberatore, a city councilor and downtown business owner — support the idea of making Water Street two-way as part of the city’s downtown revitalization plan, as a way to increase traffic.

She said many people take a left-hand turn onto Bridge Street at the intersection and avoid the downtown.

Morelli said the reasons behind a business closing are unique. Sometimes the business model doesn’t work.

“For example, one food establishment in our downtown recently left not because of traffic flow but because they needed an expensive piece of fire suppression equipment if they wanted to cook food in their building,” he said.

Morelli said Gardiner is fortunate to have groups such as Gardiner Main Street and the Greater Gardiner Riverfest Committee that “plan exciting events that attract thousands and thousand of people to the downtown and waterfront.”

Wright said whether a business succeeds or fails depends on a number of factors, includes initial capitalization, planning for cash flow fluctuations, an entrepreneurs’ experience and approach towards marketing, customer service, personal and family obligations, and whether or not the business concept is sound.

Investing in culture

Rudy said commerce follows culture in a creative economy.

In Gardiner, Rudy said, the creative economy is embodied by Johnson Hall and the galleries in town, he said.

“Water Street continues to attract, eclectic, enthusiastic, innovative businesses owners who treat their businesses like art,” Rudy said. “They really care about their products and customer service and the environments they want to create in Gardiner.”

In that way, Gardiner seems to be taking a page from Hallowell, its neighbor city to the north.

But Morelli said Gardiner is different than Hallowell, which has the through traffic of a major U.S. highway and pedestrian activity from pubs and restaurants with music venues.

“Gardiner downtown is different from Hallowell, without question,” Morelli said. “But, I think if you look at their downtown, they’ve had a recent business turnover, too.

“Just like Hallowell, we have our anchor businesses that have been here for quite some time and are popular attractions. Both of our downtowns also have business that are a bit more transient. That’s just the nature of business in a downtown.”

Wright said Gardiner is one of only a few small cities that have critical long-term anchor businesses like Hannaford and Reny’s within such close proximity to its downtown and waterfront.

“There are a bevy of diverse, interesting businesses that offer exceptional customer service and variety,” Wright said. “This eclectic mix of shops, services, and restaurants creates an experience unique to our downtown or shopping centers. It’s our competitive advantage.”

Morelli said it continues to be the City Council’s goal to foster a business friendly city through innovative policies and initiatives that support business.

One such act, he said, is the new position they created in the Public Works Department to upkeep the waterfront and downtown so Gardiner can become a regional recreation attraction and draw for businesses.

“Instead of cutting funds for economic development, the council invested in marketing and other initiatives that will help bring and keep business in Gardiner,” Morelli said. “Instead of cutting maintenance for our parks and our downtown, council invested in a new position that will help make these gems shine and again to make Gardiner be a desired location to live and do business.”

(c)2011 the Kennebec Journal (Augusta, Maine)

Distributed by MCT Information Services

 

http://bangordailynews.com/2011/09/20/business/gardiner-banks-on-culture-to-help-water-street-thrive/ printed on October 1, 2014