Thursday, December 12, 2013
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.
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."
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.
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."
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: