2013-08-22 / Front Page

Main Street Challenge: less rent and funding model may change

By Ben Meiklejohn
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD – Several property owners met Aug. 16 at the Heart of Biddeford office to discuss parameters for Main Street Challenge Encore – a proposed entrepreneurial start up competition for businesses locating to downtown Biddeford.

The contest would be a second-round reprise of last year's Main Street Challenge, although prizes and source of funding would be different. The first round helped three new businesses to open downtown – Dahlia's Delights, a vegetarian restaurant at 137 Main St., Elements, a bookstore and cafe at 265 Main St., and Tote Road, a wood store at 40 Laconia St.

Daniel Stevenson, city director of economic and community development, said the Economic Improvement Commission voted to send a proposal to the city council to expand uses for the mill redevelopment fund, a fund that had been established as part of the city's buyout agreement with Maine Energy Recovery Co. The commission, which oversees the $90,000 fund, would like to use it for development of downtown in addition to the mill district. If approved by the council Tuesday, Sept. 3, this year's Main Street Challenge would then be supported by the fund. Last year, the city used tax increment financing funds to give the three winning businesses each a $10,000 loan that will be forgiven if they stay in business for three years. To date, last year's winners are still in business.

Heart of Biddeford Executive Director Delilah Poupore said the Encore contest would focus on themes such as expansion and expertise – trying to get existing businesses to open an additional location in Biddeford, although proposals from new businesses would still be welcomed.

Grady Sexton, who owns commercial property downtown, said he would like to see “an everyday business with name recognition opening downtown.” Sexton, a member of the Economic Improvement Commisison, mentioned Laverdiere's as an example.

Stevenson said it is a good time to focus on getting businesses to relocate or expand to Biddeford because “The Portland market is coming here, and it's also pushing up from Portsmouth (N.H.)” Increasing rents for commercial space in those markets are driving businesses to explore new markets such as Biddeford, Stevenson said.

Also being changed from last year's contest is the amount of free rent being offered as a prize to winners. Instead of offering six months free rent, property owners would agree to offer four months’ rent. Free rent wouldn't start until the business opened. However, and would not be applied while the businesses are renovating or otherwise preparing their space before the opening date.

John Tarbox, who owns the Bugby Brown Building at 22 Pearl St., said it was a good idea to give award recipients the incentive to get their space prepared to open as early as possible. “Sometimes, if they know the rent is free, they can drag their feet … six months can turn into nine months pretty quickly,” he said.

In last year's challenge, the businesses were scheduled to open by November, but Elements opened four months late, in March. In a previous article, Elements owner Michael Macomber said he did not get six months rent free, but did get some free rent.

“This year, they would need to open by June, 2014, or they won't get the money,” Poupore said.

If funding for the contest is approved, the Main Street Challenge will begin accepting business concept pitches through October. A committee of participating downtown property owners will then choose 10 to 12 concepts to advance to the next level.

“I anticipate a stronger applicant pool this year because of the success of last year's (contest),” Stevenson said.

Poupore said property owners could play a bigger role in making offers to contestants. To get the type of businesses they would like to see renting their properties, they could also make private offers to those who may have good business ideas, but didn't win the contest.

“We want a good mix (of businesses downtown),” Poupore said. “We've lost one tattoo parlor and two head shops. There may be a need for those, but I think we're well represented there.”

Stevenson said, “It's OK to have that mix … we're starting to see a mix of types of businesses that start to complement each other … we have to recognize that the market is changing.”

Will Armitage, executive director of the Biddeford-Saco Area Economic Development Corporation, said the mill redevelopment fund “was meant to be a pool (of money) to be lent to mill owners for development, but it was never spread out – it has only gone to one (owner).

“We want to modify and expand (the fund) to cover the downtown district, but incorporate the forgivable loan program into it,” Armitage said.

Sexton, who is also a member of the Economic Improvement Commission that oversees the fund, had concerns about starting a second round of the Main Street Challenge contest without having had a chance to see if the first three winners would be successful. Ultimately however, he voted in favor of forwarding a proposal for a second round to the council.

“The difference,” Sexton said, “is that it's not costing the taxpayer a penny.”

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