The city is reopening its façade improvement program for business and building owners along sections of Washington Avenue, above, and St. John Street. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

PORTLAND —  After 16 rehabilitated storefronts, eight new signs, seven new awnings and two theater marquees along stretches of Congress Street, St. John Street and Washington Avenue, the city has reopened its façade improvement program for the fourth time to improve streetscapes.

The latest effort is focused on continuing to improve storefronts along Washington Avenue from Congress Street to Gould Street and along St. John Street from Congress Street to D Street. The program has previously focused on Congress Street and other sections of Washington Avenue and St. John Street.

“We focus on commercial areas that are in low to moderate income areas that seem to need some help,” said Nelle Haning, business programs manager for the city’s Department of Economic Development.

The program, first established in 2009, provides between $500 and $20,000 in grants to property and business owners who spend an equal or greater amount to rehabilitate their storefronts and replace old signs and awnings.  New construction, internal repairs and equipment purchases are not eligible. To date, close to $210,000 in grants has been matched by $470,000 in private investment. The program is funded by is funded by the city’s Community Development Block Grant Program. Haning expects there will be between $40,000 and $45,000 available in the latest round.

“Facade improvement programs around the United States really increase investment in downtown areas and continues that for years,” Haning said. “I have done facade improvement programs in other places I have worked and through it would be a great program here and have been able to use CDBG funding for it to be possible.”

The programs improve the visual quality of streets making them more desirable for customers and businesses. It also inspires others to follow suit and improve their storefronts, she said.

“It’s a program that has many many benefits,” she said.

Strand Building, 565 Congress St., before. Courtesy / Economic Development Office

The Strand Building, 565 Congress St., after. Courtesy / Economic Development Office

The first two rounds of the program, she said, improved the look of Congress Street from Monument Square to Bramhall Square. Some of the bigger changes that have resulted  include a new facade at 28 Congress St., the home of the Public Market House; new marquees at PortCity Music Hall and the State Theatre; and an updated facade at the Stand Building. Restaurants at 612 Congress St. (Sichuan Kitchen), 620 Congress St. (Coffee by Design) and 675 Congress Street (King of the Roll) also got noticeable steetside improvements.

“We went to Congress Street first because it is a very important commercial thoroughfare in the city of Portland,” Haning said. “We think it has contributed to Congress Street’s success. It’s not been the only thing, but has contributed to it,” she said.

Peter Pachios, whose family has owned the Strand building for close to 50 years, said the program played a critical part in updating the building’s storefronts, something that he had wanted to do for awhile.

“It definitely was an impetus to (make the improvements) because we knew we had a facade that was failing in many ways,” he said.

According to Pachios, the improved facade has helped to bring in a retain first floor tenants, which include The Speckled Ax, India Palace, Pom’s Thai Taste, Ollo Hair Salon and Trueline.

Pachios said he would encourage others to take advantage of the program if it comes to their section of the city.

“There are a lot of beautiful storefronts out there and it is a good opportunity,” he said.

Haning said it is too early to gauge the results of the program on Washington Avenue and St. John Street. Many of the third round of projects there have just been completed or are still underway.

Elaine Alden, owner of Izakaya Minato, a Japanese restaurant  that opened at 52 Washington Ave. in January 2017, said the program allowed her to make exterior improvements to the restaurant’s building that she hadn’t gotten around to. Money from the facade improvement program provided funding for new windows and a freshened storefront.

“Before we opened, we did a fair amount of interior work and spent a significant amount of money on the interior,” Alden said.”We thought we would make some changes to the front, but didn’t have the funding at the time. When I saw there was money available through the city, I thought we should take advantage of that.”

For more information about the program or for an application visit www.portlandmaine.gov/557/Facade-Improvement-Program or call Haning at 756-8019. Applications are due to her office by Tuesday, Nov. 26.

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