Orono businesses plan to push forward despite losing grant bid

Posted Sept. 26, 2011, at 9:38 p.m.

ORONO, Maine — When business owners learned last week that their town wasn’t among those awarded grant money to spruce up downtown storefronts, the first reaction was disappointment.

But determination to get the work done persists.

“This feels a little bit like a blow, and it is because it would have injected a much needed financial boost,” said Michele Goldman, owner of Fiberphilia on Mill Street and president of the Orono Village Association, a group of businesses focused on growing and improving the downtown area.

In July, the town and 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 all, 32 communities applied for the grant.

In June 2010, voters approved a nearly $24 million bond initiative. The DECD doled out nearly $3.5 million of that to 11 municipalities to help revitalize downtowns.

Orono is one of 21 other Maine communities that won’t see a cut of that $3.5 million.

“I feel completely baffled,” Goldman said.

She said the village association and Orono Town Planner Evan Richert worked long and hard to make sure Orono’s application was a strong one.

In tough economic times, when the state has lauded the importance of higher education institutions such as the University of Maine, Goldman said she thought having a more attractive, vibrant downtown close to the university would benefit Orono, the university and the state.

A majority of downtown businesses jumped on board with the plan and signed up to pay between $1,500 and $50,000 to spruce up their storefronts. Businesses signed commitments to do projects totaling more than $200,000, a number the grant would have matched if the town had been selected.

Goldman said she thought Orono had a strong application, and the fact that 14 downtown businesses signed up for renovations showed the town’s commitment to making big improvements.

Statewide, applicants asked for a total of $8.5 million — $5 million more than what the DECD had available, according to Denise Garland, the DECD’s director of business and community development.

That made for tough decisions on which municipalities to cut during the selection process, Garland said.

Seven communities received the maximum grant award allowed, $400,000, which didn’t leave much for the remaining 25 applicants.

Municipalities were judged by a panel including the DECD commissioner, director of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, director of the State Planning Office and four others with expertise in downtown tourism and development, according to Communities for Maine’s Future rules.

Each applicant received a score in categories ranging from the significance of the project to the area and state as a whole to the extent to which the projects support job creation.

In the end, Orono surprisingly didn’t score high enough marks, according to Richert, Orono’s town planner and former State Planning Office director under Gov. Angus King.

Richert said facade improvements, which were the force of Orono’s application, don’t add to the job market, which may have hurt their application’s score in the end. However, he expected other benefits, like the chance that a stronger downtown might draw more students to the University of Maine, would boost Orono’s advantage.

The downtown isn’t lamenting this grant denial for long.

Richert and Goldman said they plan on working on a new application, this time for the DECD’s Community Development Block Grants, which are dedicated to downtown business facade and beautification improvements.

That application is due in February.

“You kind of hope people who didn’t make the [Communities for Maine’s Future] list will apply for these grants as well,” Garland said.

Grants or no grants, the facade upgrades that business owners committed to will happen, just at a slower pace.

“It’s disappointing, but I don’t think this news is going to halt our momentum at all,” said Heather Furth, who co-owns Verve, a Mill Street burrito bar, and Woodman’s Bar and Grill with her husband, Abe. She said village association businesses will continue moving forward to make Orono a better community.

The Furths and their business partner, Mark Horton, pledged to spend $50,000 for projects on Woodman’s exterior.

Because funding didn’t come through, most businesses won’t start improvements until next year’s construction season.

“We’re going to go forward,” Goldman said. “We’re just going to go forward a little slower than we’d like.”

The recipients of Communities for Maine’s Future Grants were:

• Livermore Falls — $400,000 to revitalize Lamb Block.

• Norway — $400,000 to rehabilitate four historic storefronts.

• Monmouth — $400,000 to renovate Helen Melledy Grange.

• Belfast — $400,000 to improve streetscapes and build walking trails.

• Rockland — $400,000 to rehabilitate Thorndike parking area.

• Skowhegan — $400,000 to build pedestrian walkways and green space.

• Dover-Foxcroft — $400,000 to rehabilitate Central Hall and build pedestrian walkways.

• Unity — $305,000 to renovate buildings for a new community center.

• Eastport — $250,000 to restore Tides Institute Building.

• Winthrop — $74,282 to replace library’s slate roof.

• Bath — $70,718 to rehabilitate Customs House.

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