BIDDEFORD – David Clark and Jennifer Thibeau see Biddeford as an up-and-coming city with exciting energy — the perfect place for their small businesses.
With help from an innovative partnership between the city and the Heart of Biddeford, each entrepreneur is a week away from opening a business downtown.
Clark and his wife, Bekah, will open a retail space for Tote Road, the hand-carved wood business they started nearly two years ago.
Thibeau and her fiance, Wes Rhames, will launch Dahlia’s Delights, a vegetarian cafe focused on using local products and composting waste.
Tote Road and Dahlia’s Delights were winners of the Main Street Challenge, a new contest that will give new business owners help getting off the ground.
A third business, Elements, will open later this year. Michael Macomber’s contest prizes will help him launch a used-bookstore and cafe that will become a taproom and event space at night.
The Main Street Challenge is meant to help start businesses and support owners during their first year, when the failure rate is the highest, said Delilah Poupore, executive director of Heart of Biddeford, which works to revitalize the former mill city’s downtown.
Early this year, Heart of Biddeford put out a call for prospective business owners to submit two-page write-ups about their ideas.
The 27 responses produced 10 semifinalists, who were asked to submit full business plans. Five applicants were interviewed by a panel of judges, which chose the three winners.
Each winner will receive a $10,000 forgivable loan from the city, six months of free rent, and donated and discount services such as tax consultation, legal help and website development.
Money for the loans — which will be forgiven if the businesses meet certain criteria — comes from a tax-increment financing district that’s funded in part by the Biddeford Crossing shopping development and earmarked for improvements in the city’s downtown and mill district.
The three winners were chosen because their businesses are the types that will generate more foot traffic downtown, Poupore said.
“People are going to walk in and see what potential Biddeford has because of what a great job these businesses are doing,” she said.
Tote Road and Dahlia’s Delights will hold grand-opening celebrations during Biddeford’s Downtown Holiday Festival on Nov. 30.
The Clarks started Tote Road in 2010, selling their hand-carved wood products at fairs and craft shows, and on consignment at stores. They wanted a storefront, but were told by a bank that it would likely be five years before they could get to that point.
With the Main Street Challenge, they got their storefront in 10 months. To add to the loan and services they won, they have invested $20,000 of their own money in the business.
“This allows us to get a foot in the door without going into debt,” said David Clark, noting that the storefront will allow them to do more custom-ordered projects.
David and Bekah Clark said they are happy to become part of downtown Biddeford, where former textile mills are being redeveloped for commercial and residential uses.
“I was really excited about what I saw going on in the mill buildings,” said David Clark, who moved recently from Saco to Acton. “Everything the city does to improve is fantastic.”
“The community really worked together on this project,” said Bekah Clark. “It’s a jump-start (that) small businesses can really use in this economy.”
Thibeau and Rhames are lifelong residents of Biddeford who are “seeing a lot of positive changes in our community,” Thibeau said.
“I love our downtown. I like the vibe,” she said. “We want to contribute to the revitalization of Main Street.”
When the challenge was announced in February, Thibeau was working in the medical field but had long dreamed of opening her own cafe. The challenge “gave me the spark to take the plunge and try something different in my life,” she said.
Once the cafe opens, Thibeau will be the full-time cook. She plans to hire two part-time employees and hopes to add positions in the future.
“It’s been my dream to have my own cafe. I get to live my dream,” she said. “I feel welcome down on Main Street. It feels wonderful.”
Daniel Stevenson, the city’s economic development director, said the Main Street Challenge is “fantastic” for Biddeford because it helps fill empty storefronts with new and creative businesses.
“It gives local people the opportunity to start new businesses,” he said. “We think this is just wonderful news.”
Staff Writer Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at: