When Heather Latham envisions the future of Woodfords Corner, she sees a thriving neighborhood center.

“Storefronts are filled. Pedestrians are around anytime of the year and different times of day,” said Latham, a 43-year-old member of the Friends of Woodfords Corner. “People who would have normally … driven through want to pull over. And there continues to be a mix of business and diversity – not just of type of business but who owns them.”

To get there, the Friends of Woodfords Corner has joined the Maine Downtown Center, a move the group hopes will help it raise money for community projects, promote the neighborhood and attract new businesses – all while preserving the history of the existing buildings.

Woodfords Corner, nearly a mile from the Portland peninsula and the city’s downtown core, is the first neighborhood and nontraditional downtown to be approved as a Downtown Center affiliate. It joins 16 communities that have become part of the Maine Development Foundation program aimed to promote preservation-based economic development. Becoming an affiliate requires an extensive application process that includes an online application, a site visit, interview and written comment, according to the MDF.

Woodfords Corner on May 12, 1947. Forest Avenue is the main street in the foreground, with Deering Avenue on the right.

“Woodfords Corner has all the pieces to be successful, including a defined district and a mix of housing and diverse businesses, historic buildings and most importantly a strong organization,” said Anne Ball, Maine Downtown Center’s program manager. “The Friends of Woodfords Corner are an amazing group of grass roots volunteers that are well on their way to being a successful Maine Downtown Affiliate.”

Ball said the Friends of Woodfords Corner will have access to a range of services, including professional and technical assistance, as well as training and planning.

One community to have found its footing with the help of the program is Norway. The western Maine town of about 5,000 residents started off as a Main Street Maine Community, a higher level of affiliation with the Maine Development Foundation that required the downtown district to have a full-time director. Norway became a Main Downtown Affiliate in 2009.

Scott Berk, who serves on the board of Downtown Norway, said he relied on the downtown group for advice when he opened up a coffee shop in a downtown building. At the time, the small village was plagued with empty storefronts and old buildings in need of repairs.

“They had a positive view of the potential future of Norway and that gave me confidence to invest on Main Street,” said Berk, the 52-year-old owner of Cafe Nomad.

Today, storefronts are filled. There’s a Norway Brewing Co. and Fiber & Fine, a store that sells wine and yarn. There’s also a bookstore, a Maine-made gift shop, a food co-op, a bakery and a variety of restaurants. And the Norway Opera, which at one point seemed destined for demolition, is undergoing a major renovation.

“Norway is proud of what we’ve done and we give a lot of credit to the Maine Downtown Center,” Berk said.

ELECTRIC TROLLEY LINES

The Friends of Woodfords Corner are hoping for similar results.

Ball, the foundation’s program director, said she was impressed diversity and family-oriented feel of the corner.

But Woodfords Corner is also transit-oriented. Development in the area took off in 1890s when horse-drawn trolleys were replaced by electric trolley lines, according to Greater Portland Landmarks, a nonprofit historic preservation group. Trolley lines were in service through both world wars. Then car culture began to take off.

Andrew Zarro, co-owner of Little Woodfords coffee shop and a Friends of Woodfords Corner board member, said he’s excited about the neighborhood’s partnership with Maine Downtown Center. The Friends group has been active in revitalizing the area, organizing community cleanups and block parties.

The corner has the feel of a small downtown area, primarily because it was once the center of the town of Deering, before it was annexed by Portland in 1899. Its center is defined by the Odd Fellows Hall, a four-story building that once served as Deering’s town office. Its 80-foot-tall clock tower, which was recently restored, presides over the five-way intersection that sees more than 27,000 vehicles a day.

In recent years, the city has been focusing planning and improvements for that area, which they hope will be a node for additional mixed-use development of housing, offices and retail, given its proximity to downtown Portland and its public transportation.

The intersection recently underwent a $9 million upgrade designed to improve traffic flow, sewer and storm-water systems, widen sidewalks and add bike lanes. A new plaza was created in front of the Odd Fellows Hall, where the city installed a piece of public art – five silver metal light poles twisted into the shape of a tree, called “Luminous Arbor.”

Portland’s Urban and Development Director Jeff Levine said the Main Street affiliation serves to reinforce the potential at Woodfords Corner.

“It’s an indication of the excitement and energy that is turning Woodfords Corner into a new top destination in Portland,” Levine said. “I hope this designation will lead to opportunities for other improvements.”

The Friends of Woodfords Corner, which was formed in response to intersection improvements, will be tasked with working with Maine Downtown Center staff. The group has formally incorporated as a nonprofit with an 11-member board of directors. It has been active in helping revitalize the area, organizing community cleanups and block parties, including its CornerFEST, which drew over 200 people.

Today, the combination of businesses – restaurants, antiques, coffee shops, international markets, seafood store and a theater company – give the area an eclectic feel.

Friends President Teresa Valliere said much of the group’s work is centered on making connections in the community – something that the neighborhood craves. “There were business owners literally next door who had never met,” said Valliere, a 58-year-old clinical social worker and therapist. “Neighboring is a verb around here and it includes businesses.”

The Friends group hopes to work closely with city staff and the Maine Development Foundation to identify grant and other planning opportunities. All 17 affiliates are in the early stages of downtown revitalization and many are working toward achieving “Main Street” designation, the MDF said.

Andrew Zarro, a 30-year-old co-owner of Little Woodfords coffee and a Friends board member, said he’s excited about the new partnership. He served on the board of a Main Street program when he lived in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood, which worked with the city to help business owners design signs, set up their storefronts and organize other promotional events, like art walks.

“JP is very similar to Portland,” Zarro said. “It’s very creative, artistic and a big focus on small, locally owned businesses.”

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

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