Biddeford has earned the reputation as a gritty, blue-collar mill town that trucks in trash to burn in a downtown incinerator. There’s about 1 million square feet of mill space that is largely vacant, and the buildings downtown still ooze their historic charm.
But the tree-lined Main Street almost appears quaint on a recent afternoon, with a diverse mix of restaurants offering ethnic foods — burritos, Chinese, Thai, sushi and Irish-American. Antique stores speak to the city’s history, but the Engine art gallery and Phoenix Rising jewelry store hint at the city’s future.
At the center of it all is a volunteer group called the Heart of Biddeford, which recently announced the winners of its Main Street Challenge, which provides three businesses with money and services to help them through their first year.
The contest is just one way the Heart of Biddeford, one of the Maine Development Foundation’s Main Street Maine communities, is trying to remake and revitalize the city. For its efforts, the group recently was recognized as the “Outstanding Main Street of the Year” at the MDF annual conference.
After operating for five years on a budget of $60,000, HoB recently increased its budget to $89,000, $20,000 of which comes from the city. Executive Director Delilah Poupore says the increased budget has been supported by more business sponsorships and grant writing.
She was appointed HoB executive director in March 2011, filling a paid, part-time position that had been vacant for three months. Poupore, who has a background in higher education, says the group is developing stronger ties with the Saco-Biddeford Chamber, the Buy Local group and Saco Spirit, another Main Street Community, to coordinate efforts to revitalize interest in the downtowns.
“A lot of people have forgotten that downtown is a place where you can park your car and walk two blocks, she says.
Mainebiz recently talked with Poupore about the challenges and opportunities for economic growth in Biddeford. Below is an edited transcript:
Mainebiz: Where did you get the idea for the Main Street Challenge?
Poupore: I knew that I really wanted to focus on recruitment and bringing in new businesses. In my hometown, Duluth, Minn., they were doing a “Great Space Giveaway,” and as I read up on it, I thought Duluth has so many commonalities with Biddeford in terms of being a [once] successful industrial town that is now trying to find its way again.
Mainebiz: What was the response like from prospective business owners?
Poupore: It was exciting to get 27 pitches — just seeing people’s enthusiasm and excitement. We did not get very many retail businesses, and that’s one of the things we would like more of on Main Street — retail businesses that cluster and complement the other businesses downtown.
We did get at least three coffee shop-related businesses, and that’s one of our priorities. I think they have a real potential to draw [University of New England] students down here and give people who are coming to town the first place to stop, a bit of a social hub.
Mainebiz: How have you tried to position those businesses to succeed?
Poupore: The highest failure rate for any business is in the first year and a lot of that depends on whether they had the funds in line to get through that first year. Well, these businesses are getting 6 months of free rent, a $10,000 forgivable loan and really valuable in-kind services such as free Internet and phone, [and] advertising opportunities through their chamber membership.
Just to get over the money investment of the first year, they just have this incredible amount of support. And the press they have already gotten, and will get through this, puts them in great position to really be noticed. There have been businesses that have opened downtown that people don’t even know are there. Another reason I think these businesses will get a push is because we arranged business planning training sessions for the contestants. [The winners] have experts in legal affairs and small-business start-ups to mentor and help them.
Mainebiz: What are your other accomplishments during your first year?
Poupore: One, I think, is highlighting Biddeford as a place for entrepreneurs. There were 14 vacancies on Main Street a year ago. You can see that as dire, or as “look at all that opportunity there.” We were able to advertise that opportunity through innovative programs.
Mainebiz: Like what?
Poupore: We did a youth pop-up competition, which means we had high school and college students running stores [in vacant storefronts] for a month leading up to the December holidays. One had an ice cream shop and another had a “Fruit de la Terre,” which means fruits of the earth; it was kind of a farmers market. That brought a lot of publicity. It not only gave students a chance to try on business ownership, but it also got the word out, “Hey, there are all these spots here and you can think creatively in Biddeford.”
Mainebiz: How many vacancies do you have now?
Poupore: Six, and that includes lower Alfred Street. But up to three of those could be taken by the Main Street Challenge.
Mainebiz: What else has been going on?
Poupore: We have all kinds networking events and meetings, but we also started up the entrepreneurs group that meets the second Friday of every month. It focuses on educational opportunities and networking — teaching the business owners [about] Facebook, leadership sessions, customer service [and] storefront design … The best way to start recruitment is to make sure the businesses we have are well supported and looking good and doing well. The design committee has helped eight storefronts this year put in new lighting in the windows and do redesigns of their displays, so as people walk down the street they will be drawn in. We [recently] won a pitch competition [through the Maine Development Foundation] on that and got $1,500 and another $1,500 in in-kind services.
Mainebiz: How often does the Maine Energy Recovery Co. trash incinerator come up in your conversations about obstacles to overcome for economic development? Is that really a big deal?
Poupore: Yeah. On the one side, the city has benefited from MERC being here economically in terms of the tax base and having 80 employees downtown. I don’t think anybody wants to say unilaterally MERC is terrible. But there have been major companies that I have talked to that said “we won’t come until MERC is gone.” There’s a perception that goes along with having that chimney and the smell that comes with having trash in your downtown. People wonder, “Why would a city let trash be brought to its downtown?”
Mainebiz: Someone recently described Biddeford as a “Little Brooklyn.” Is that a comparison you agree with and welcome?
Poupore: There’s definitely a draw from Brooklyn up here, so I think it might be true. I think part of that [draw] is the gorgeous brick buildings. Biddeford isn’t quaint. It’s edgy and with that I think artists are drawn to it. Artists see opportunity in places, so they come in first and create a scene. They draw the attention of people who want to come see art and enjoy the restaurant next door and then think, “Maybe I could open a clothing store there, too.” We’re definitely capitalizing on the city-type atmosphere.
Mainebiz: What are the biggest challenges to economic development in Biddeford?
Poupore: A lot comes under the heading of local mindset: People believing in the downtown again; people not believing the phrase, “There’s no parking there,” because there is. There may not be enough parking, but if you’re willing to walk a block and a half, there is parking. [Also, there is] a little bit of that, “We’ve tried that before” mindset. We need to get over some of those things locally, because it’s new people, it’s a new time, and it’s not the same economic era we were in 5, 10, 15 years ago, so you can try something in a different way again.
Mainebiz: We’ve heard anecdotally that local politics can be somewhat adversarial, which has hurt economic development. Has anything changed under Mayor Alan Casavant?
Poupore: Mayor Casavant has been actively supportive almost of everybody who wants to try and make a difference in Biddeford. I’d say the atmosphere at City Hall — it’s a great time to introduce people to Biddeford.
I have heard Biddeford often has an antagonist political atmosphere … From the outside, it sure seems like people are trying to work together. When you have a city that has been this hard hit and you don’t know where to point a finger or find a solution, or you’ve tried so many times and you’re not sure where you’re going to find it, the only people you can take it out on is each other, and that’s what happens.
Mainebiz: What does the Heart of Biddeford have on tap for the upcoming year?
Poupore: We have a strategic planning meeting with the board, and that’s how we kicked off last year. I think it’s really important to get people around the table and get their ideas. Over the next year, my goal would be that people say Biddeford is a good place to do business; that it’s easy to set up shop; they feel supported by the city; there [are] a lot of resources from Heart of Biddeford.
Main Street Challenge winners
• Jennifer Thibeau and Wes Rhames of Biddeford, for Dahlia’s Delights, a vegetarian restaurant.
• Michael Macomber of Saco for Elements, a used bookstore and cafe by day and taproom and event space by night.
• David and Rebekah Clark of Saco for Tote Road, a hand-carved wood items store.
• $10,000 forgivable loan from the city of Biddeford’s tax increment financing district.
• $10,000 in in-kind services, including six months free rent, chamber membership and advertising, website design and hosting, phone and Internet, tax consultation, video and photography services, signage and payroll assistance.
• Five-year fixed-rate loan (if desired).
• Ribbon-cutting event.
• Featured at the Downtown Holiday Festival in Biddeford.
• Open by Thanksgiving.
• Employ at least one person.
• Commit to a three-year lease.
• Base business on Main Street, Alfred Street or the North Dam Mill.
Randy Billings, Mainebiz senior writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.