As people leave Calais, city seeks answers

Downtown Calais.
Downtown Calais.
Posted Oct. 04, 2011, at 7:40 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 05, 2011, at 5:05 a.m.

CALAIS, Maine — Calais city councilors are banding together with business and civic leaders to “turn the tide” on the city’s declining economy, Mayor Joseph Cassidy said Tuesday.

The border city on the St. Croix River has been struggling in the county’s economic downturn — empty storefronts dot Main Street, families are packing up and moving out, and an attitude of defeat seems to be moving in.

Carl Royer just closed his family-owned store, My Favorite Things, after 12 years in Calais. “I don’t think it is Calais, per se. I think everyone has been hit by this economy. I just returned from upstate New York and as I drove through the small towns, they have the same empty store fronts there that we do. It is everywhere. There is just no expendable cash,” he said.

Calais has lost 9 percent of its population in the last 10 years and at least a half dozen major businesses, City Manager Diane Barnes said. The result has been a loss of the very youthful, energetic population that keeps cities vital.

“We have an aging population now,” Barnes said. “Families are leaving.”

Cassidy and Barnes said they may not know what the solutions are, but they said city leaders recognize there is a problem and have renewed their desire to turn things around.

“We are going to be looking into any opportunity there is, even if that means hiring an outside consultant,” Barnes said.

“Across the country there has been an economic downturn,” Cassidy said. “But we have been especially hit hard. This has really knocked people back on their heels. We’ve lost businesses. We’ve lost people.”

Cassidy said the city has a big challenge ahead and only by combining the efforts of government, civic entities, the people themselves and local businesses will it make progress.

“We have to take a dual track,” Cassidy said. “We need to work to create opportunities.”

Royer said he is optimistic about Calais’s future.

“I think we’re going to see Calais come around, but it is going to be slow,” Royer said. “When the economy finally turns, I think all of Washington County is going to be in a good place.”

Getting all the pieces in place so Calais can capitalize on that turnaround will be tricky, Cassidy said.

Cassidy said that when he looks at the city’s economic picture, particularly the downtown area, he is puzzled why some businesses appear very successful while others aren’t making it or have shut down.

“We need to see why this is happening and how can the city be part of the solution,” Cassidy said. “How can we match our assets with opportunities?”

“We have just started this process,” he said, adding that the council is determining whether an outside consultant could look at Calais with fresh eyes and possibly make suggestions not thought of previously.

Barnes said retaining Calais’ historic downtown will be vital as the process moves forward. “I think most of this has to do with the national economy,” she said, “including our declining population. It costs a lot, with high energy costs and insurance, to stay in business.”

Barnes said that since Calais shares a border with New Brunswick, many Canadians cross into Calais to shop at Mardens and Walmart, and buy gasoline and milk, which often costs $7 per gallon in Canada. Barnes said this is vital money coming into the community, but the city must look to develop itself and build on its own population and its needs.

“I don’t know what the answer is,” Barnes said. “But we are sure going to work to find out.”

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