This story was modified at 10:46 a.m. to correct an address in a photo caption.

SACO – Driving down Main Street, it’s hard not to notice recently vacated storefronts.

The lull in business, however, has been seen before in the community.

“It’s not the first time this has happened,” said Peter Morelli, director of development for the city. “These things can be fairly cyclical.”

In the past 24 years, he has seen a drop in the city’s Main Street businesses at least three times. Most recently was in 1997, he said, when seven storefronts were left empty — including a large space at the corner of Pleasant Street that’s now occupied by Community Pharmacy.

Those storefronts were occupied by new businesses within six months, Morelli said.

Today, there are about 10 empty storefronts on Main Street. Business people and local organizations are hoping that when one door closes, another will open.

“We can think of it as concern or think of it as opportunity for some new businesses to move in,” said Nadeen DeSilva, executive director of Saco Spirit.

DeSilva said the nonprofit organization that promotes Saco’s downtown is always looking to attract new businesses. Morelli said the city is working with Saco Spirit to attract businesses, and help those already open.

One new program will help at least a dozen downtown businesses by changing out their current light bulbs to energy-efficient LED light bulbs, Morelli said. He estimated that switching out the light bulbs could cut electricity costs in half.

There is also a collaboration between Saco and Biddeford in a “buy local” campaign to bring shoppers to the cities’ downtowns, said Biddeford-Saco Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Craig Pendleton.

That campaign is helping, he said, but empty storefronts are still discouraging.

“Of course it’s disappointing, and it sends a tough message around town as you watch some of your neighbors go out of business,” Pendleton said.

The chamber has done research in the past to assess rental rates on Main Street in both cities, Pendleton said.

“We were wondering if the Biddeford and Saco rent on Main Street was too high and if that was what was causing the mass exodus,” he said.

Morelli said he has seen retail space rented for as little as $3 per square foot per year and as much as $17 per square foot per year.

Space that recently was vacated at 199 Main St. is listed online at $14 and $14.50 per square foot per year.

Simply You Too was one of the shops that vacated 199 Main St. Owner Lori Irving said she decided to close the women’s formal wear shop and consolidate it with her other shop, Simply You, at 266 Main St.

“With the economy the way it is, we are trying to downsize, but also offer many things to many people at a better price point,” Irving said.

During the six years she has been in business on Main Street, Irving has developed a strong customer base.

She said the move to consolidate the two shops and expand into space vacated recently by neighboring Saco Bay Classics will reduce her overhead costs, including rent and utilities.

Business success is one factor explaing why companies stay on Main Street, but both Pendleton and Morelli said moves sometimes reflect smart business decisions.

The growth of businesses just off Main Street may illustrate that, Morelli said.

For example, Fernleaf Bakery opened at the corner of Free and Middle streets, and last week Coastal Cakes opened for business in Pepperell Square.

Coastal Cakes’ owner Vicki Pettinger said that after living in Saco and working out of her home baking and decorating cakes for the past three years, she decided to expand her business.

She chose the empty storefront in Pepperell Square for its character, and as a business strategy.

“With the economy and the rent being so expensive on Main Street, (this location) is just enough off the beaten path I’m not going to go broke trying to make rent,” Pettinger said.

While she has noticed the empty storefronts, starting up a business doesn’t worry her. She said that with a strong product and a sensible business plan, along with the community support she has seen since moving to Saco, she is hopeful that her business will succeed.

Though stores have come and gone, Vic & Whit’s owner and former Mayor Mark Johnston, said he hasn’t seen this many empty storefronts in his 39 years of doing business on Main Street. And he’s less hopeful about attracting new businesses.

“I don’t think anyone can do anything to attract more businesses downtown until the economy picks up,” Johnston said.

He attributes the vacancies to many factors.

The demographics of Saco have changed and the city has become more of a bedroom community, Johnston said.

Shoppers’ mentality has also changed, with more people stopping at big national retail stores rather than local shops.

“It’s a mindset, going to shop downtown. People love downtown, but they can’t forget (to shop) downtown. (Businesses) don’t stay here without some type of monetary transaction,” Johnston said.

Pendleton said the presence of national retailers like Walmart and Target is affecting Main Street and the whole downtown district, but he noted that some of the major stores are members of the chamber.

And he pointed out that the buy-local campaign emphasizes spending money at Saco and Biddeford businesses.

Morelli acknowledged that the national economic picture is gloomy, but said he’s still hopeful that the picture on Main Street will get better and vacancies will decline.

“These will get stacked up and replaced with good businesses,” he said.

Staff Writer Emma Bouthillette can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

[email protected]