By Diana Bowley, Of the NEWS Staff - DEXTER - It is a constant struggle, but communities throughout the state are revitalizing their downtowns, one storefront at a time. For centuries, downtowns were places where residents could walk to get all their essential needs from groceries to medicines, places that promoted social encounters, and provided focal points for celebrations. But the advent of superhighways, urban renewal and the development of strip malls in outlying areas caused these hearts of communities to lose their beats.
"I don't think it could have been avoided, it was a natural occurrence, it was a convenience," Dexter Town Manager Robert Simpson said Thursday. His community is among those in Maine working to fill empty storefronts and beautify the downtown to entice economic development.
Jim McConnon, associate professor of research, economics and policy at the University of Maine in Orono, has observed the deterioration of downtowns in some communities. "I've certainly recognized that downtowns for years have struggled in the wake of the growth of shopping malls, suburbanization and the increased presence of big-box stores," he said, Thursday.
Some say the Bicentennial in 1976 was a turning point for downtowns because it created a much stronger interest in local history. Residents in some communities became aware that their deteriorating downtowns created bad images for businesses looking to expand or relocate and for visitors. That prompted a movement to breathe new life into their centers.
McConnon said that in recent years, he has seen more businesses and individuals become proactive in marketing their downtowns with some success.
The struggles by Maine communities hoping to improve their downtowns and attract businesses did not go unnoticed by the Legislature, which in 2001 created the Maine Downtown Center, a nonprofit agency designed to serve as a resource for downtown development.
"People are focused on the downtown as a source of community and for economic vitality," Downtown Center coordinator Darcy Rollins said this week. To help communities with downtown revitalization, the agency will offer workshops at its annual meeting from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 25, in Bangor. "It's great to see so many local initiatives," she said.
Like Dexter, the Penquis region towns of Dover-Foxcroft, Monson, Greenville, Guilford, Sangerville and Milo all have formed downtown revitalization committees, whose role is to find businesses to fill the empty storefronts and vacant lots and to beautify the overall appearance.
The greatest obstacle of these committees, according to Rollins, is to get everyone in the community focused on the downtown and to comment on what they want the downtown to become.
McConnon also believes community support is essential. "I think it is vitally important to have a collaborative effort on the part of everyone who has an interest, to provide input and help in carrying out strategies," he said.
Downtown improvement efforts often serve as a magnet for future growth, according to McConnon. "Keep in mind that rural downtowns still depend vitally on good jobs located proximate to downtown," he said.
And the attraction of visitors from outside also is a boost. For example, a study of passengers from cruise ships that stop in Bar Harbor revealed that each person on average spent $100 in the community during a seven-hour stay. Five or six years ago, only a handful of ships stopped in the harbor whereas more than 70 are expected this year, he said.
Centrally located in the state, Dexter has to focus its downtown efforts in other ways, such as community events. A Wild West celebration is planned for Aug. 1-3 and the community aims to convey a hometown spirit to the end of stimulating economic development.
"I think people are realizing the value of downtowns," Simpson said. "The glitz and glamour of the big-box stores may be a draw, but some people really like to have that one-on-one local treatment that they can only get on Main Street America."
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