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Bangor has been on a good run since the 2009 financial crisis, with steady growth in the city’s total retail sales, businesses opening downtown and a number of commercial developments going up.
Now, business owners and development officials are worried about the short-term economic damage that will come from the rising number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Maine, which have forced many local businesses to temporarily close their doors and retool their operations. As a result, the number of Mainers seeking unemployment assistance spiked this week.
Businesses are less certain what’s coming in the long-run, but many of them are preparing for rocky waters as confirmed cases of the virus continue to mount — including at least one in Penobscot County — and U.S. officials acknowledge that the country may be headed for another recession.
Summer Allen, the owner of Valentine Footwear on Main Street in Bangor, decided to temporarily close her store to the public this week and instead start selling products by mail order, delivery or curbside pickup. She has been forced to scale back the hours of her two part-time workers.
She has made some “very decent” sales over the past few days, she said, but questions whether the demand for boutique footwear will last.
“I’d love to be wrong,” she said. “But it’s a nonessential product. It’s an emotional purchase product. If you’re in your house and you don’t have anywhere to go, but you know everything will basically be OK, sure, you could do some shopping. But how important is that when we start getting a lot of cases in this area?”
Sarah Morneault, a co-owner of Tiller and Rye, a natural and organic grocery store in Brewer, said she hopes the community bands together to support local businesses such as hers. The store on Wednesday eliminated the seating at its cafe area and opened a drive-up window as a result of an order from Gov. Janet Mills.
But Morneault is worried the store could take a hit if tourists cancel travel plans to Maine or customers lose interest in paying the higher prices for its organic and local products. “Will they be hunkering in at home, out of fear or a lack of income?” she said.
It’s clear that some stores, restaurants and businesses that cater to tourists will struggle in the coming weeks as their operations are restricted and travelers cancel plans, according to Tanya Emery, Bangor’s director of community and economic development. But other operations have been able to quickly adapt to the changes or have even seen a bump in sales as Mainers stock up on supplies.
“The fact that we do have a diverse economy is a strength,” Emery said. “If you’re in the grocery business, you’ve probably been overwhelmed. If you’re a J.C. Penney, you have probably sent a lot of staff home now. There are probably a lot of challenges. It really depends on what niche you fill.”
The city and the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce are working to identify any local, state and federal resources that would help struggling businesses to ride out the pandemic, according to Emery. They are also seeking input from businesses themselves.
It’s not yet clear whether the country is headed toward a true recession and, if it is, what the long-term ramifications would be for communities across Maine, according to Yellow Light Breen, the president and CEO of the Maine Development Foundation.
Maine’s economy did not contract as much as other states’ did following the 2009 financial crisis because it has such a diversified economy, according to Breen, but it did take Maine longer than other states to recover from the crisis.
Regardless of how the current downturn plays out, Breen said that the state should not lose sight of its other economic development goals — such as expanding broadband access and promoting workforce training — so that it can come out stronger on the other side.
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