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

(Continued from page 1)

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

Fleury, a longtime downtown building and business owner, listed several reasons why he thinks this time will be different. He noted that the Main Street Maine program, which the downtown association would join and which would help in hiring and guiding a downtown manager, uses a successful, time-proven national model for downtown revitalization.

Also, he said volunteers working to revitalize the downtown now have tremendous energy and, in the last 2 1/2 years, have made progress downtown.

But Fleury warned that relying only on volunteers is not sustainable. The downtown, he said, needs a dedicated, full-time manager.

Elfin said a nationwide search for an experienced downtown manager would be conducted.

"It needs to be done by a professional downtown manager, who would bring stability to the position while building trust and cooperation on Water Street," Fleury said. "We finally have a group of ready, willing and able bodies to make things happen, but we need to take the next step. It is clearly in sight for us to have a downtown we can all be proud of."

BUILDING MOMENTUM

City Manager William Bridgeo, while praising the efforts of the Augusta Downtown Association, said the city cannot commit to the $25,000 in funding now, because he's finalizing next year's proposed city budget.

Councilors instead have agreed to wait until the budget is in their hands later this month, and then they'll discuss the request for funding the downtown manager as part of their annual budget process.

John Finnegan, president of downtown insurance agency Macomber, Farr & Whitten, said the current momentum he sees and feels downtown is the most tangible and meaningful commitment he's seen in nearly 40 years. Finnegan is active in the Augusta Board of Trade and is chairman of the Augusta Parking District, an agency that oversees downtown-area parking.

"Good things are going to happen," Finnegan said. "I've always welcomed the idea of a downtown manager, if you get the right person who can effectively market space, identify and inventory space and meet and greet people."

He said the challenge with maintaining the downtown manager's position in the past may have been paying for it.

"Let's be frank. With the current economy, there are not a lot of small businesses with a lot of cash, so that will be a challenge," Finnegan said. "But you don't tread on people's dreams and aspirations. Those positions get funded, but then sometimes the funding runs out, or the person moves on. I don't think that's specific to Augusta.

"That's the acute problem: How do you sustain it? I think once you establish a tone, an atmosphere, you've just got to build on it."

Fleury and Gervais said revitalizing downtown wouldn't just be good for downtown merchants; it would be good for the whole community.

"My favorite quote I hear people saying is, 'I wish they would do something about downtown,'" Gervais said. "I'm pretty sure the 'they' is 'we,' and everyone involved in downtown. If you specifically promote this area, consumers will respond in kind, because they'll feel appreciated. As soon as customers understand this area is for them, they'll buy in.

"Because the truth is we're a state built on being kind and supportive to our neighbors. And that's what downtown is all about."

Keith Edwards can be contacted at 621-5647 or at:

kedwards@centralmaine.com

 

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