March 10, 2013

Augusta may try downtown manager again

Despite failed efforts in the past, some in Augusta believe that a downtown manager could bring new life to the city's downtown – with the right combination of direction, backing and person.

By KEITH EDWARDS Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA – Proponents of hiring a downtown manager say previous stumbles at creating such a position won't happen if the person's full-time job is make the capital city's downtown better.

click image to enlarge

This photo shows downtown Augusta last Thursday. A proposal for the city’s downtown to become a Main Street Maine program was recently presented to the Augusta City Council.

Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

By most accounts, the city's previous efforts at having a downtown manager flopped. Critics of hiring another one question whether this time will be any different.

The Augusta Downtown Association, a group of advocates working to revitalize the city's downtown area, has asked the city to partner with it and local merchants and other contributors to hire a full-time downtown manager. The association wants Augusta to join the Main Street Maine program, which requires participants to have a downtown manager.

As recently as 2002, Augusta had a downtown manager funded by a variety of interested parties, including the city and downtown merchants. From 2001 to 2002, the job was staffed by downtown managers hired specifically for that purpose, and in the late 1990s it was overseen by "executives on loan," according to Augusta Downtown Alliance President Larry Fleury.

A full-time downtown manager was hired in 2001 but lasted just six months on the job before he left. His replacement lasted about nine months before the position was eliminated in 2002 after the city withdrew its $20,000 contribution as part of budget cuts.

Fleury said the early 2000s was a down time economically, and with downtown managers sticking around for such short periods, they weren't able to build up trust.

"It was really doomed right away," Fleury said of the previous attempt at establishing a downtown manager in Augusta.

The manager's position previously was funded jointly by groups including the city, an organization of merchants known as the Heart of Augusta, the Augusta Parking District and the state.

Stacy Gervais, owner of Stacy's Hallmark downtown, has an even more frank description of the previous manager efforts.

She said they failed because the downtown managers had to take orders from outside entities and didn't focus enough on the downtown.

"An embarrassment is what it was," Gervais said. "Their heart was in the right place, but unfortunately, because of the way it was funded, the activities of the downtown manager were subverted by the city. The city gave them ridiculous bureaucratic tasks to do, so no benefit to the downtown ever materialized.

"One guy, who was downtown manager for about seven months, I called him 'the schlepper,' because all he did was schlep back and forth, from his office to the coffee shop and back."

JOB POTENTIAL

However, Gervais, Fleury and others believe a new downtown manager could bring new life to the city's downtown with the right direction, backing and person. Renewed revitalization efforts are already under way, led by Augusta Downtown Association volunteers.

"It definitely has potential in the hands of the group that's currently seated with the Augusta Downtown Alliance, if they can have the freedom to run it in the manner it should be run," Gervais said, "with (the downtown manager) having direct involvement in the workings of the downtown, without being saddled with the bureaucratic stuff that has nothing to do with downtown. There is tremendous potential here, but it needs a point person."

Fleury and Roxanne Elfin, senior program director for the Maine Downtown Center, recently presented their proposal for the city's downtown to become a Main Street Maine program to the City Council.

The city's commitment would be one-third of the estimated $75,000 annual budget, or $25,000, with the downtown association, merchants and other donors funding the other two-thirds.

Mayor William Stokes and city councilors asked what would be different this time.

"We've tried a downtown manager before, and it wasn't terribly successful. Why will it be this time?" City Councilor Mark O'Brien asked.

(Continued on page 2)

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