2017-06-29 / Front Page

Taskforce works on strategy

By Grant McPherson
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD – The Downtown Task Force Committee began discussing recommendations to the city council as part of its overall plan for developing downtown.

Economic Development Coordinator Brad Favreau said he will have drafted a vision statement for the committee to review at its next meeting at 8 a.m. Thursday, June 29, and would not release it ahead of the meeting. Favreau said he doesn’t know when a formal proposal will be made in front of the city council.

Committee Chairman Bruce Benway said the vision will likely be in two parts, the first being a broad overview and the second a supplementary set of specific examples to improve the downtown such as a permanent bench lay out and the location of more trash receptacles.

Julian Schlaver, co-owner of Angelrox and Suger, a clothing manufacturer and boutique in downtown Biddeford, said while all improvements to the downtown should benefit residents, encouraging tourist activity will be a necessary component of the city’s success. Schlaver said he and his wife, Roxi Suger, own two retail locations, one in Biddeford and one in Portland. He said there’s a huge difference in commercial activity between the two towns, with Portland generating more than double the activity for them.

“Portland has elements we don’t have,” Schlaver said. “It would be a prudent approach to identify the differences, but it may not be comparable.”

Mark Robinson, Biddeford resident and owner of Maine based public relations firm Robinson PR, said friends from Massachusetts drove to Portland after researching areas to tour craft breweries. Robinson said when he asked if they considered stopping in Biddeford they said they had never heard of it.

“We’re not quite on the map, but we should be,” Robinson said.

Benway said in the process of attracting tourists, entertaining them once they arrive will be important.

Schlaver said the film “Dare to be Wild,” which was scheduled to be shown Wednesday, June 28 exclusively in Biddeford and was to raise money for Clifford Park, was a great example of an event that could draw more people to the area.

Biddeford resident Pete Lamontagne said beautification efforts downtown have made a big difference in its overall appearance. He said of the shop owners he’s spoken with so far, most feel the flower hangings and planters were a good decision. Lamontagne said he wasn’t initially convinced given the $27,500 cost of the project, but has since changed his mind, especially after speaking with his wife.

“She saw the sun shining on all the planters and said they were beautiful,” Lamontagne said. “I went home a happy man.”

Stephen Beaudette, another Biddeford resident, said it’s important the condition of the flowers is sustained given the positive reception among business owners.

“If you don’t follow up and maintain over time, the result will be doubly disappointing,” Beaudette said.

Favreau said the flower planters were part of a pilot program to help show businesses what can be done on Main Street and encourage the establishment of the Downtown Improvement District. The city hopes to have the district’s board of directors created by the end of 2017. Because of the creation of the Downtown Improvement District, the first year, downtown property owners will see a 47 cent increase on the mil rate for every $1,000 of valuation of their property. The money collected from the new tax could be used for beautification projects, marketing, events, cleaning and maintenance.

Schlaver said because the planters had to be moved closer to the street, they’re a good example of a project that more voices could have helped refine. In planning for Biddeford’s future he said he likes the way Portsmouth has plenty of benches for people to sit on and he enjoys the ability for people to perform or play music on the streets of Portland. Schlaver said Biddeford should look into options for both of these to add to downtown activity.

“The next step in the beautification process should be a positive space for performers and a place for people to enjoy them,” Schlaver said. “We need tourists to feel welcome and happy.”

Benway said when he was city manager of Augusta there were trade organizations that operated similarly to development districts. He said funds were collected by the city and operated by local banks. Benway said businesses could apply for small loans and voters would approve proposed changes to the downtown. He said it’s an option for the committee to bring before the council.

“The role for any city in the downtown is custodial, not leadership,” Benway said. “Businesses and the public in general have to be the driving force.”

Robinson said he agreed with Beaudette and felt frustrated watching projects in the downtown start and stop over the past three years.

“We need to get the word out there to build on the mission,” Robinson said. “Hopefully businesses take this on.”

Benway said one of the problems that faces growth in downtown is limitations from zoning restrictions.

“People investing in downtown should look at it as an easy process,” Benway said. “It shouldn’t be difficult.”

Delilah Poupore, executive director of the Heart of Biddeford, a nonprofit quasi municipal organization focused on projects in downtown Biddeford, said there is an opportunity to reach out to more manufacturers and build on the retail momentum that has been established in Biddeford.

“Do pipeline advertising with Brooklyn, New York to the Biddeford mills,” Poupore said. “Let manufacturing businesses know they can set up a retail flagship store on Main Street.”

Schlaver said the city could help businesses alleviate the trash burden facing many of them. He said since there are few back access points and alleyways in Biddeford, many businesses struggle to dispose of their waste properly. He said finding a trash solution is an example of meeting basic business needs in the downtown.

“I would love to give council examples of things we can do to keep progress rolling,” Schlaver said.

Benway said his recommendation to the council would involve creating a consistency in appearance of the downtown. He said the downtown will evolve on its own and it’s the committee’s responsibility to keep the bigger picture in mind.

“The downtown is going to do what the downtown is going to do,” Benway said. “The city’s policy should be to make the evolution most productive.”

Contact Staff Writer Grant McPherson at news@inthecourier.com

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