When Bath won national recognition as one of five Great American Main Streets this spring, it validated the efforts of countless community volunteers, business leaders and shop owners across Maine engaged in revitalizing and investing in their own down towns. A lot of hard work and planning over many years went into making Bath a “great place to live, work, and play;” other communities — there are now 10 official members of the Main Street program — are following suit, building on their unique assets, incorporating arts and culture and supporting and attracting diverse businesses to their downtown areas. The Main Street program is supported by the Maine Development Foundation’s Maine Downtown Center.
For a retail business, locating in one of these towns is as much a commitment to community as it is a business investment. According to Jennifer Geiger, head of Bath’s Main Street association, meeting the needs of local customers is at the heart of a successful downtown revitalization effort. Business community members then come together around a shared vision, work to identify and promote their unique features and diversify the mix of businesses in the local economy. By patronizing these downtown businesses, local residents help support an environment and activities that enhance community life.
The Courtyard Cafe, a full-service restaurant in downtown Houlton, has been one of the anchors in that town’s revitalization for the last 14 years. Joyce Transue, owner and chef, takes great pride in the success of her restaurant and feels she has “created a pleasant, comfortable atmosphere that helps draw people to town.” Her function room provides space for locals to meet, including groups involved in Houlton’s community development. The building, which she owns, houses two other businesses, a yarn shop and a computer repair business, drawing other customers to Houlton’s historic downtown. A second restaurant opened across the street from the Cafe.
“The competition is good,” said Joyce. “It gives people coming to town more options, so more come.”
Houlton became a Maine Downtown Network community in 2011, a first step toward becoming a Main Street community.
The Monkitree Gallery, a fine art and crafts gallery in Gardiner, offers another example of how business development and community development come together. In looking around for a place to land, having had enough of life in the big metropolis, Clare Marron and her partner were drawn to Gardiner precisely because it was a community with a vision and a plan. “We wanted to get in on what was about to happen,” was Clare’s way of putting it. They found a lot of information about the community readily available and they liked the beautiful old buildings — including the one they ended up buying and renovating. The fact that community members had organized to promote their town made it easier for Clare to see how her business idea could fit; it wasn’t long before she was asked to join the board of Gardiner Main Street.
After two years in operation, Clare says she feels connected to her new community — the local artists her gallery promotes, other Main Street shop owners, and local service providers.
“As a property owner with ongoing renovations, we hire local contractors of all sorts,” she said. “It is important to remember that trades people are part of our community and contribute to our success.”
In Portland, an active Buy Local movement adds to the sense of community fostered by the Portland Downtown District. When Melissa Rivera was working on her business plan, she knew she wanted to support local craft producers. Today all of the fine crafts sold at lalo Boutique are made in Maine, many one of a kind. Her location, in the State Theater building in what is known as the Upper Arts District, allows her to reach the local market and benefit from the foot traffic associated with other nearby eateries, art studios and service businesses.
“In addition,” she noted, “95 percent of our vendors live right here in Portland. Shopping at lalo takes ‘buy local’ to a whole new level. Our credit card processor, our shopping bag supplier, all our print needs, etc., is sourced right in Portland.”
While running her business, Melissa also serves the community as a member of the Downtown District and is on the board of the Buy Local campaign. “It’s a win-win for all parties involved; it keeps us in the loop about all things local, for instance, we know when a cruise ship is in town.”
It takes a community to raise a community may seem redundant, but among retailers like these three, being involved in helping to create their communities makes good business sense.
“I’d like to see all the shops full,” said Joyce in Houlton. In Gardiner, Clare wants “all of us to succeed — and a few more.”
For new downtown retailers, Melissa offers this advice: “Don’t be afraid to be different, be passionate about what you are doing — and network, network, network.”
Eloise Vitelli is the program director for Women, Work, and Community, a statewide organization that has provided training and assistance to start-up entrepreneurs since 1984. For more on the Main Street Four point approach see http://www.mdf.org/mstm_fourpt.php.