Portland Downtown has secured funding from the AARP Community Challenge program to add art, lighting and greenery to alleys in the city, including this dead-end alley behind Mechanics’ Hall on Congress Street. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

When Portland Downtown Executive Director Cary Tyson walks past an alley in Portland, he doesn’t see a dark corner of the city but rather an opportunity.

“Living here and visiting here for years, it seemed to me we got these alleys, but a lot of them are used for little more than trash pickup or, in the Old Port, for people to get from one place to another,” said Tyson, who joined Portland Downtown in June 2020.

A new grant from AARP will help Tyson and Portland Downtown transform alleys in the city into more visually vibrant places.

Patton Court, which runs between the Fore Street Parking Garage and lower Exchange Street businesses, will get a visual boost, too. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

Portland Downtown received a $6,000 AARP Community Challenge grant last month to “activate blighted alleyways with murals that use old doors, lighting, greenery and creative overhead treatments to turn the corridors into engaging multiactivity spaces.”

“We are excited about this project as we continue to work to make downtown more vibrant,” Tyson said.

Portland Downtown is working with James Cousens, a 2021 graduate of the Maine College of Art, to create stencils of native birds and flowers that then, through the help of senior citizen volunteers, will be painted onto the black metallic doors that face the alleys.

“It’s all the same theme, but the stencils can be applied differently,” Tyson said.

So far, two alleys have been targeted: Patton Court, between Exchange Street and the Fore Street Parking Garage, and the dead-end alley behind Mechanics’ Hall on Congress Street.

“If it goes well, we hope to expand it to other places,” he said.

The project has the support of D.Cole Jeweler co-owner Dean Cole, whose business at 10 Exchange Street backs up onto Patton Court.

“From what I understand, a graffiti artist will leave a building alone if it already has art on it,” he said. “That was the main factor in me agreeing to do this. It is an alley that is attacked readily by graffiti. As long as the (Portland Downtown project) is tastefully done, it is a positive for the area.”

Portland Downtown is the second Portland-based project that has won an AARP Community Challenge grant over the last three years. In 2019, Portland Trails received money to upgrade the Canco Woods trail to make it handicapped accessible.

Securing the grant was a competitive process. More than 3,500 applicants were seeking the nearly $3.2 million available.

Other 2021 AARP Community Challenge funds will go towards: Age Friendly Communities of the Lower Kennebec and the City of Bath’s project to install chess and checker tables in downtown; a outdoor hot air balloon event being planned by the town of Freeport; and an effort by Age-Friendly South Portland to improve pedestrian and bicycle safety in the city by installing lane delineators, signage and curb extensions.

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