Two women take a walk through a quiet downtown Freeport in April, shortly after most businesses closed due to the coronavirus. File photo

FREEPORT — The Freeport Town Council has contracted with a Boston consulting firm to complete the first phase of a downtown strategic visioning plan.

“We have watched as businesses have closed and left our fabulous town over the last few years,” Council Vice Chairperson Tawni Whitney said at the Dec. 15 meeting. “The No. 1 question I’m asked as a councilor is, ‘What are you doing about Main Street?’ We knew it was a priority of our residents so we needed to take that seriously and figure out a solid plan.” 

The Town Council began discussing ways to reenergize downtown prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Whitney, and in June 2020, funds were allocated by the council.

According to information provided by Keith McBride, executive director of Freeport Economic Development Corporation, the vacancy rate in downtown has increased since 2017. Of 780,318 square feet of commercial space, 6.77% was vacant at the start of the third quarter of fiscal year 2018 in July, compared to 8.65% by the end of the fourth quarter of 2020 in December.

McBride noted that vacancies are typically lower in the second and third quarters due to busy holiday seasons, but this year vacancies continued to rise throughout the last two quarters of the year, likely due to the pandemic.

“We understood that we may not see a whole bunch of businesses coming into town for the third quarter because businesses were being very protective of their cash,” McBride said. “So we didn’t see businesses looking to expand or relocate.”

“(T)he decrease we would’ve expected due to the cyclical way that vacancy rates tends to go in Freeport did not happen this year,” McBride said. “At this point of the year we would’ve expected to see our vacancy rate lower than 8.65%.”

Whitney, along with Freeport Economic Development Corporation President Mary Davis and longtime local business owner Chip Gray, interviewed 13 different consulting firms before deciding on Principle Group. The council’s vote to sign a $50,000 agreement with the firm was unanimous.

“What we need from a consultant is an expert to bring the townspeople’s voices together and to shape our identity for the future of experiential retail while enhancing access to the resources we already have,” Whitney said at the meeting. “Principle has a long history of guiding New England towns through major changes.”

Russell Preston, the founder of Principle Group, presented an overview at the meeting of the planning and development process.

“We believe that it’s about creating a feedback loop and a dialogue throughout the entire process with the community so that we can actually design the plan and create it together,” Preston said.

The first meeting with Principle Group to begin phase one was Dec. 23, with a goal of putting together a work plan to address the need for more retailers. To garner input from residents, Preston proposed conducting a survey, virtual workshops, online mapping and public comment, and socially distanced walking tours.

The rough timeline presented at the meeting shows phase one wrapping up by the end of May. Phase two, consisting primarily of community visioning, is scheduled to be completed by September. Concrete designs and planning are to take place around October 2021 as phase three.

Freeport Economic Development Corporation (FEDC) and the Town Council have been working towards revamping life downtown in the short term as well. Discussions with FEDC about residential development in the Village Zoning Districts are scheduled to continue at the Jan. 6 Planning Board meeting. Information will be shared about changes that could be made in land use regulations to encourage new residential housing downtown, encourage redevelopment of vacant properties and the economic impact and value of downtown housing on Freeport. No action will be taken that night.

“If we have people living in downtown Freeport, we believe it’s going to stay more vital,” Davis said at the meeting.

Putting in pop-up stores and an outdoor farmers market has added some additional pep to downtown this year, Whitney said, and residents have been responding positively.

“We need to make sure that downtown Freeport remains vital,” Davis said. “That is a large part of both the economic base of Freeport, but also a draw for visitors. It’s the heartbeat of Freeport.”

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