Dale Baker stationed at the new community park in downtown Freeport. Baker said the park has helped his business by giving customers a place to sit when eating. C. Thacher Carter / The Times Record

New trial projects aimed at revitalizing downtown Freeport and boosting the town’s economic resiliency were put to the test this summer.

Project examples included a new skatepark, a parklet on Main Street and a community seating area behind Starbucks.

In June, the Principle Group — a Boston-based consulting firm hired to help reshape downtown Freeport — challenged town officials to implement the projects as a first step. The projects’ completion marks the end of the first phase of the town’s revisioning plan.

Freeport’s downtown is largely dominated by retail commerce like L.L. Bean and other shopping outlets, an industry that was significantly impacted throughout the pandemic as more people stayed indoors and businesses competed with online retailers like Amazon.

According to Freeport Town Councilor Tawni Whitney, the goal of the visioning plan is to introduce a more experiential, community-based economy to the downtown area, which in turn will draw people and also benefit the businesses.

Ideas for projects were sourced entirely from community feedback, Whitney said, and were funded through donations, volunteers and a roughly $2,500 contribution from the town.

The Times Record reported in June that the Principle Group was paid approximately $50,000 for the initial phase of the project, and according to Freeport Finance Director Jessica Maloy, the town has budgeted another $100,000 for the downtown visioning project in fiscal year 2022, which began July 1.

Skateboarder and Freeport local Peter Miller doing a nose manual on a box at Freeport’s new pop-up skatepark. Parts for the skatepark were primarily donated by Bath skatepark. C. Thacher Carter / The Times Record

“The whole idea of the downtown revisioning is that we want a town for the people of Freeport, we want a town for the kids of Freeport and we want a town for the visitors of Freeport,” said Freeport Economic Development Corporation President Mary Davis. “These projects kind of covered that whole gamut of making sure that we trial what each of those folks were asking for.”

Dale Baker, 30-year owner of Nik and Noah’s hot dog and lobster roll stand in Freeport, said that operating out of the new community park and seating area has helped his business. The park includes yard games and donated furniture from L.L. Bean.

“It’s been a godsend,” Baker said. “People take full advantage of the seating, even when we’re not open they’ll use it”

Baker said 2021 has been the busiest year he’s ever had, in part, he suspects, because of increased travel after a year of COVID-19 quarantine.

Freeport local and skateboarder Peter Miller said that he typically comes to the new skatepark two or three times a week before work and that, in the future, it would be great to see a concrete skatepark in town.

“It’s cool to see that the town is acknowledging skateboarding,” Miller said, noting that roughly 30 people attended the opening event. “Freeport has never had a skatepark since I’ve been around.”

Other test projects included concerts, an outdoor public piano and painting parts of the road on Bow and Main Streets, according to a newsletter from Town Councilor Dan Piltch.

According to Whitney, each trial project has had some degree of success and will be incorporated into the downtown again after the winter months.

Going forward, a finalized action plan by the Principle Group for Freeport’s downtown is expected to be presented to the council in early 2022.

“What people said they want, they’re actually using,” said Davis. “Now, it gives both the town, the council and the community reason to say ‘well maybe we should invest in these in a more permanent space.'”

The Times Record reported in June that Freeport’s downtown commercial vacancy rate stood at 12.4% during the second quarter of 2021 — the highest rate since the 2008 financial crisis.

According to Freeport Economic Development Corporation Executive Director Keith McBride, the rate for quarter three for 2021 dropped to 10% as businesses moved to town in early summer.

Two examples of new downtown organizations, according to Piltch, include the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association and the Arts & Cultural Alliance of Freeport’s new Meetinghouse Arts Center, which operates an art gallery and will soon be opening a 200-seat performance venue.

People sitting at the parklet off Main Street in downtown Freeport. C. Thacher Carter / The Times Record

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