Brewer: Developing the other side of the Penobscot – Part I

Center Street is part of what is being designated Brewer’s downtown district. The designation will forgive a number of parking spaces that businesses in the district will be responsible for providing, a necessary step since there aren’t many non-public parking options in that area. The city hopes to draw more businesses to this area; doing so might result in parking problems, but that would signal the city that investing in public parking would make sense.
David M. Fitzpatrick
Center Street is part of what is being designated Brewer’s downtown district. The designation will forgive a number of parking spaces that businesses in the district will be responsible for providing, a necessary step since there aren’t many non-public parking options in that area. The city hopes to draw more businesses to this area; doing so might result in parking problems, but that would signal the city that investing in public parking would make sense.
Posted July 29, 2013, at 4:10 p.m.

There’s an old saw that says people from Brewer will go to Bangor, but people from Bangor won’t go to Brewer. In 2008, the city of Brewer conducted an extensive survey that revealed that people on the eastern side of the Penobscot River preferred to shop in Brewer if they could get what they needed there. Since those on the Bangor side generally have what they need in Bangor, they’re less apt to go to Brewer.

But after the Bangor Mall area, Brewer’s Wilson Street corridor is the second busiest commercial area in the region. That makes it attractive to businesses that see the strong east-side-of-the-river market — and to those businesses looking to draw people from the other side.

Either way, the city of Brewer knows it has to sell itself, even with tight budgets and a lagging economy.

“The city council and city management understand that economic development is the key to moving the city forward and providing a higher quality of life for our citizens,” said D’arcy Main-Boyington, Brewer’s director of economic development.

“More jobs, better jobs, further diversification of the economy, and a broadening of the tax base: These are the things that will ultimately heal the budget crises that municipalities and residents are currently facing,” she said.

Some projects are obvious, such as the widening of Wilson Street to five lanes from I-395 to Parkway South, the last stage of which will happen next year, the final step in addressing the traffic snarls that have long been a challenge for Wilson Street businesses.

But the city has engaged in many less visible projects during the recession. First on Main-Boyington’s roster was redesigning the city’s notoriously underwhelming website.

The result is a slick online presence that nicely serves city taxpayers and is a powerful a marketing tool for attracting new business.

Then the city revived the once-popular Brewer Business Resources program. Free for Brewer and out-of-town businesses, the program has offered recent topics that included customer service, starting a business, fraud and identity theft, and healthcare reform.

Main-Boyington lauded Machias Savings Bank, which provided the Community Room at its Wilson Street branch to host the program for a year. The city is interested in ideas for new topics and for potential future site sponsors.

“The program is free; all [that] businesses have to do is register and show up,” said Main-Boyington. “The program has been well-received.”

Also well received have been the plans to designate a downtown area around the Center Street business district. This designation will waive the first 24 off-street parking spaces a business can be responsible for providing.

This is key for this area, where tightly packed buildings and zero sidewalk setbacks mean limited options for off-street parking.

The hope is to draw more businesses to that area, which might eventually lead to parking problems, but that could be a good thing.

“That will be a signal to the city that we need to create additional parking,” Main-Boyington said.

The city also has been reviewing ordinances that impact businesses or stop others from coming to town. Some ordinances have been on the books for decades and are no longer relevant. For example, one ordinance prohibited sandwich boards and banners; there was probably a reason for this ban when it was passed, but nobody remembers it, so the city went through the public process of changing it.

A consultant already helping with Brewer’s comprehensive planning will sift through the city’s ordinances; that person will identify other outdated ordinances that might be changed to better reflect the city’s current goals.

“What the city was trying to encourage for development 40 years ago may be very different than what we’re trying to develop [and] encourage now,” Main-Boyington said.

One key goal for Brewer is to market itself, which it’s doing in large part by having signed on as a founding partner of the new Cross Insurance Center. The city’s $455,000 investment spread across seven years gives it powerful marketing opportunities at the arena, which Main-Boyington says will be a regional game-changer — and Brewer wants a piece of that action.

“This is ‘the’ facility in the state; there’s nothing else like it,” she said.

“This is a spectacular venue that Bangor has built, and it will change how people think about the city of Bangor and the surrounding communities, and we will start seeing tourism from southern Maine as people start coming up to attend events here,” Main-Boyington said.

Brewer will use its marketing package to promote its businesses, which will have the opportunity to share in advertising on signage and the digital display in the arena. These marketing opportunities, otherwise possibly beyond many of Brewer’s small businesses, will now be attainable.

“I think it’s going to be a huge benefit for our existing businesses, and they’re getting really excited about it, which makes it a lot of fun,” said Main-Boyington. “We hope that it is also a tool that we can use to try to encourage other businesses to come to Brewer.”

Next week, we’ll look at how Brewer’s community development efforts are making the city a more attractive place for businesses.

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