FREEPORT — In the face of declining retail sales, one of Maine’s signature retail locations is rebranding itself as an “experiential” arts and culture destination.

From Memorial Day to Labor Day, Freeport’s sidewalks are filled with shoppers, the inns with guests and restaurants with diners. Those shoppers have been drawn to the downtown’s outlet stores as well as L.L. Bean’s flagship store.

The activity usually ebbs after the Labor Day sales end and picks back up for a “mini-season” around Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, said Keith McBride, executive director of the Freeport Economic Development Corp. That rush continues through the holiday season into January. However, even during the summer and holidays peaks, Freeport is having to adapt to a world that is moving away from brick-and-mortar retailers, toward a blend of online shopping and mom and pop stores.

Freeport experienced an almost 20 percent drop in sales last year, down from $76 million in 2014 to $61 million in 2018.

“What keeps people coming to Freeport is it’s more experiential,” McBride told the Press Herald in August. Hotels and inns in town are still filled in the summer, even if the tourists aren’t coming back with as many shopping bags at the end of the day.

“Freeport is already a destination,” he said. “It’s how we continue to enhance that – that’s the most important thing for us right now.”

Last year, Freeport and the Freeport Arts and Culture Alliance established a 2018 cultural plan to help develop “experienced-based opportunities to remain resilient” in the face of changes to the retail sector.

“Freeport possesses a talented community of performers and visual artists and an abundance of historical assets (but) these cultural strengths are in the background of Freeport’s reputation,” the plan states. “With an estimated 3 million visitors annually, there is immense potential for Freeport to diversify the economy with investments in (the arts) sector and emerge as a cultural tourism destination.”

During the so-called “shoulder seasons,” in late fall and the spring, without the same traffic and parking constraints during the busier months, Freeport is ramping up more arts and cultural offerings as a way to “show off more of what we can do,” McBride told The Times Record.

Freeport’s annual Fall Festival, for example, now in its 21st year, will bring an estimated 65,000 people to town this weekend for more than 150 art vendors, food, children’s activities and live music, said Kelly Edwards, executive director of Visit Freeport, the town’s nonprofit marketing and information bureau.

“Events like the Fall Festival, Sparkle Celebration and Flavors of Freeport make a huge difference in the number of people coming to town for the weekend,” Edwards said. “As a result, our hotels, restaurants and shops get a nice boost when it may otherwise feel quiet compared to summer.”

People come to Freeport for many reasons outside of retail, McBride said, including outdoor recreation opportunities and a budding beer scene, with breweries like Maine Beer Company, Stars and Stripes Brewing and Gritty’s growing in popularity.

The arts offer yet another draw, and festivals like the Fall Festival “diversify the experience and bring a whole new crop of people into town,” McBride said.

“There’s a lot of art that goes on in Freeport, but you don’t see it everywhere,” he said, adding “other communities do a better job of showcasing it.”

In 2017, Americans for the Arts found that the country’s nonprofit arts and cultural industry produces $166.3 billion in annual economic activity, and $14.6 billion in federal, state and local tax revenues.

The Freeport Arts and Cultural Alliance reported in the cultural plan that 82 percent of respondents felt that strengthening local support for the creative sector is very important to the future of Freeport and 84 percent agreed that arts and culture added to economic vitality and resilience.

Matt Fogg, a professional musician and owner of Cadenza, a music venue that opened downtown in May, is perfectly happy to fill that role.

The space is fully outfitted and has instruments for the musicians to play, rather than the band having to lug all their own stuff around, he said, “something that you never ever see (anymore). I wanted to be different from the get-go.”

Since Cadenza opened, Fogg said he has had live music every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night, and is already welcoming national acts like Marcia Ball, who performed in July.

Fogg, a Bath resident who also owns the Midcoast School of Music in Portland, says Portland might have been a more logical spot for his newest venture, but there are plenty of music venues in Portland already. In Freeport, he could pave the way.

“There are a lot of empty storefronts right now,” he said, “a lot of places are feeling the retail apocalypse – everywhere is,” he said. Fogg grew up in Biddeford and is no stranger to how a city or town can reinvent itself in the face of adversity. “Why not Freeport?” he asked. “It’s totally possible.”

Before too long, another performing arts space may join Cadenza. In April, the Freeport Town Council unanimously appropriated $133,000 in tax increment financing funds to help the arts and cultural alliance renovate and lease the Main Street First Parish Church. The contribution covers roughly half of the $288,000 project, according to the Forecaster. The church will eventually be used as a 200-seat performance hall and gallery known as Meetinghouse Arts.

According to McBride, fundraising is going well. Saturday, Meetinghouse Arts, touting itself as “a home for arts and culture on Main Street” is hosting an open house from 3:30-6 p.m. to showcase its new home at 40 Main St., with tours and performances.

The new space is one step in a “strategic vision effort to focus our direction as we wade through this transitional period,” McBride wrote in a memo on the Economic Development Corp. website.

It’s not all bad news for retail. L.L Bean is still doing well: In March, the Press Herald reported that sales for the Freeport-based company were up 1 percent in 2018 over the year before, with $1.6 billion in revenue. McBride said that storefronts are stilling filling up downtown, but with a new focus on local flavor. Bella Boutique, Grand Gourmet, Skordo, Maine Remedies, Ellie Anna, Blue Lobster, Wanderlust, Gypsy Rags and Freeport Feed Store, all locally owned, have opened within the last year.

“Retail will always be a big part of Main Street,” he wrote.

Nevertheless, growth in events like the Fall Festival  is “an encouraging sign for the arts in Freeport,” Edwards said.

The Fall Festival will kick off Friday and will feature food, vendors, artists, live music, activities for children and a bubble tent, located across from L.L. Bean, Key Bank and the Freeport Town Hall. Freeport Community Services also is hosting its annual Chowdah Challenge.

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