WESTBROOK – Westbrook officials are hoping to create a thriving and revitalized downtown business district by becoming a member of the Maine Development Foundation’s Maine Downtown Network, which is a model for revitalizing a downtown by involving a wide array of local players.

On Tuesday, Feb. 18, city officials hope to gauge support for the initiative with a public meeting. Officials are inviting business owners, property owners, and property managers to discuss options for the program at the American Legion Hall on Dunn Street.

If the plan moves forward, a new Westbrook downtown coalition would pay a $1,000 fee to the Maine Development Foundation, an Augusta nonprofit, which would help implement the foundation’s model for strengthening downtowns. The fee would entitle the Westbrook coalition to foundation services such as an annual conference, consultants, and training for the coalition’s volunteer coordinator.

Bill Baker, the assistant city administrator for business and community relations, said Tuesday that a draft application for the program, which is already posted on the city website, will be presented at the meeting.

He said the major components of the program are ways to market vacant space and bringing mixed-use development into the downtown – “all the things that need to happen to make Main Street healthy,” he said.

According to the draft details, the coalition will include business owners and operators, property owners and landlords, media representatives, legislators, city councilors, architectural experts, historic building preservation experts, chamber of commerce representation, housing authority representation and more.

Baker said that following a Maine Development Foundation presentation in Augusta last month, he was reminded that, to his knowledge, Westbrook has never participated in a program such as this.

“I was aware of the fact that there haven’t been any organized efforts to unite downtown property owners and business owners,” he said Tuesday.

However, Baker acknowledged that there has been much discussion of a need for downtown revitalization in the past, and that this option could finally bring a solid solution forward.

“When this option appeared, it seemed like a good opportunity to rally the talk that’s been going on for 20 years around a specific objective,” he said.

The Maine Development Foundation administers both the Maine Downtown Network and Main Street Maine programs. The Main Street program, considered the foundation’s core program, utilizes a four-point approach to downtown revitalization developed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which, according to the foundation’s website, is used in 44 states and more than 2,200 communities.

The foundation’s four-point approach includes organization, design, promotion and economic restructuring.

The Maine Development Foundation website describes the Downtown Network program as using the same four-point approach, but at a “lighter, less rigorous pace.”

“The MDN is ideal for communities in the early stages of downtown revitalization,” it states.

There are 11 Main Street Maine and 19 Maine Downtown Network communities statewide.

In the draft application, Baker describes the desired result as “an eclectic and successful mix of residential and business uses in the downtown that will create a sustainable path toward job creation and prosperity, balanced with environmental stewardship.”

Baker said on Tuesday that an organization such as this could have the ability to provide some clearer vision for businesses invested in the downtown, as many thoughts and ideas are out there, but often get lost in the mix.

“My thought was that now would be a good time to organize this effort and see if we can get buy-in from people who sometimes have conflicting interests, to be part of the solution,” he said. “It’s a way to organize the energy down there and channel it in a positive direction.”

Steve Lampron, owner of River’s Edge Deli on Main Street, said Tuesday that he’d be interested to hear more about the program, and especially ways it could help revitalize the downtown.

“When you drive in, it’s just not inviting,” he said of Main Street. “The park is great, but other than that there are no features.”

Lampron added that he likes the idea of “business people putting their heads together.”

Scott and Kirk Smith, brothers and managing partners of Clarke Painting and Property Management, which oversees six properties throughout Westbrook, said Tuesday that a downtown organization should focus on attracting more investment in downtown housing and buildings.

“We don’t need any more subsidized housing,” Kirk Smith said. “If you want downtown businesses to thrive, you need residents who are invested in their community.”

Kirk added that their company has invested roughly $250,000 in their properties in just a short time.

Scott said that while the idea of a downtown network sounds great, there needs to be a new group of Westbrook faces willing to participate. “It’s always the same people,” he said. “We need fresh perspectives.”

Andy Curran, the manager of the Saccarappa Art Collective on Main Street, said Wednesday that to him, a downtown network would be mostly about networking.

“The word ‘network’ is important in the title,” he said. “We all know the importance of it, but to create a street-level, city supported network is a great idea.”

Curran added that he sees the idea as sort of a larger version of what his business is already trying to accomplish.

“We’re a collective by name, so we’re networking already,” he said. “If you have 11 people, you have 11 mailing lists.”

If supported, the coalition would select a part-time coordinator, who would be paid $15,000 annually to head the program. Baker said the person selected would have to have “energy and enthusiasm to stay in touch with all the players on a day-to-day basis.”

Baker said the Westbrook Environmental Improvement Corp. has already committed to supporting the position of coordinator for two years.

According to application details, total project costs would be roughly $40,000, paid for by mostly grants, donations and other sources.

“One thing the mayor has asked us to do is turn analysis into action,” Baker said. “This is a successful model with structure and specific objectives in mind.”

Other Downtown Network communities include Kennebunk, Camden and Bar Harbor, with Rumford and Kingfield also joining in 2013.

However, Baker said, the only way he sees Westbrook joining the Maine Downtown Network is with strong support from not only downtown businesses, but also property owners and landlords.

“This will create an opportunity, so it will be up to the group to lend their energy into this process in order for it to be successful,” he said.

Andy Curran, manager of the Saccarappa Art Collective on Main Street, straightens a painting Wednesday in preparation for an opening Friday. Curran believes a “street-level, city supported network is a great idea.” 

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