2017-05-04 / Editorial

Investing in downtowns creates jobs, opportunity

Beyond the Headlines
by Sen. Justin Chenette

Downtowns and village centers are the beating hearts of our communities.

You only need to stroll down Main Street in Saco to feel the pulse. There is something special about bumping into your neighbor at the post office, or seeing students walking home from school, or grabbing an impromptu cup of coffee at Fernleaf Bakery or a bite to eat at Rapid Rays with a close friend that makes you feel connected to something larger than yourself.

Revitalization of our downtowns – the walkable, denser parts of our towns and cities – is an integral part of sustaining a community that will be inviting and welcoming to families and businesses for generations. We’ve seen this work pay huge dividends not just in our region, but it’s happening all over Maine. From Biddeford to Bangor, our downtowns are leading Maine’s comeback story.

Our downtowns represent more than just our sense of community spirit, though; they are economic drivers for entire regions and play a critical role in our state’s economic engine. When the downtown in a particular area does well and is vibrant, jobs are created and the tax base grows, which brings more money into municipal budgets to stabilize property tax rates.

For many years, business trends moved storefronts and services out of downtowns and into the sprawling outskirts of most communities. Today, though, the pendulum is swinging in the other direction. People want to get out of their cars. They want clean, green, walkable, happening community hubs where they can work, run errands and socialize with friends and family.

The trends all point toward a renaissance of downtowns all over our state, but the state needs to do its part in helping this growth and opportunity advance in a positive direction.

That’s why I’ve introduced a bill this year in the Legislature that would kick start revitalizations of downtowns throughout Maine. The bill LD 1343, “An Act To Promote Downtown Revitalization by Creating the Locating Businesses Downtown Loan Program” creates the Locating Business Downtown Loan Program to provide forgivable loans to businesses looking to relocate to a downtown, village area or along a main street. In particular, it incentivizes new, startup businesses to create a hub of innovation and creativity.

My bill is partly based on the Main Street Challenge, a local program launched in Biddeford that provides funds and assistance to new business ventures to help them with startup costs throughout their first year. The Maine Street Challenge was a successful program yielding major interest in new startup businesses popping up downtown. This is economic development 101: Create the right conditions with the right incentives and they will come. I’d like to see this be used as a model across the state.

As a board member of Saco’s downtown development organization, Saco Main Street, this is one of our top priorities, to fill our historic downtown district with a variety of shops and locally owned businesses.

Maine’s demographic challenge is well known. Our state is exporting young people and, as a result, our communities are getting older and older, putting a strain on employers who can’t find enough working-age people to fill the jobs at their companies. For our state’s future, we need to convince more young people and young families to stay in Maine, and convince even more to move here from away.

Addressing the shortage of workers, the need for new businesses and the importance of preserving our historic downtowns will take a comprehensive, all hands-on-deck approach. I have to believe that part of it is creating welcoming, vibrant communities where young people and their families can live, work and play. Investing in our downtowns and our small businesses will help us get there.

Justin Chenette is serving his first term as the youngest senator in the Maine Senate representing Saco, Old Orchard Beach, Hollis, Limington and Buxton. He previously served two terms in the Maine House of Representatives. Outside the Legislature, he is owner of Chenette Media LLC, a multimedia public relations company, and is the president/ CEO of the Saco Bay Center of Civic Engagement, a 501c3 nonprofit service organization. Sign up for legislative updates at www.justinchenette.com or www.Facebook.com/JustinChenette.com.

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