March 8, 2010

MAINE COMPASS: Proposed bond would help fund demand for downtown projects

Bonita L. Pothier

GrowSmart Maine has worked for the past six years to support creative forms of development that make our towns and cities more affordable, accessible, economically vibrant and attractive.

The recession of the past two years has been hard on growth in general. But as a recent newspaper article about the revitalization of downtown Gardiner makes clear, the walkable, architecturally rich neighborhoods of Maine's village centers and downtown areas are still attracting new businesses and investments.

Almost all of Maine's biggest real estate developments of 2009 happened in the state's downtown areas and along its Main Streets.

Downtown Waterville welcomed the rebirth of the Hathaway building as new offices and residential space, several large-scale mill redevelopment projects continued in Biddeford and Saco, and downtown Brunswick welcomed a new commercial complex designed around its future train station.

The largest new retail development of 2009 wasn't a suburban big-box shopping center; it was a walkable cluster of new shops in the middle of downtown Freeport.

These projects, plus dozens of smaller Main Street building projects like those in Gardiner, are all happening because there's a growing demand in the market for living and working space that's downtown, close to other businesses, cultural activities and people. Downtown developments offer lower commuting costs for workers and their employers, and also increase the amount of money exchanged in local economies.

The heightened sense of community on Main Street also offers less tangible productivity benefits for workers and businesses. You might meet a new client at the sandwich shop, or strengthen your professional network in a chance meeting on the sidewalk.

In a business environment that thrives on public spaces, walkable streets and civic vitality, the public sector has an important role to play. Modest public investments in downtown infrastructure -- sidewalks, parks, community centers or shared parking lots -- garner big responses from the private sector.

Still, Maine's towns, as well as the state government, have been slow to catch on to this trend.

Highway engineers who think nothing of spending tens of millions of dollars to widen roads for a new big-box store will become unusually tight-fisted when it comes to spending a few thousand dollars on a Main Street sidewalk.

Fortunately, state policies are catching up with the private-sector trend.

In recent years, GrowSmart Maine has worked hard in the State House and with individual towns to provide new opportunities for public and private investments in Maine's downtowns.

For instance, in 2008, GrowSmart Maine and its allies helped pass a new statewide building code, which simplified regulations to enable more downtown rehabilitation and historic preservation projects.

Also in 2008, we passed one of the nation's leading historic preservation tax credits, which covers both large-scale and small-scale rehabilitation projects for historic structures. The tax credit, which went into effect at the onset of the recession, has helped sustain hundreds of design and construction jobs through the downturn by securing the financing for projects like the Hathaway Creative Center in Waterville.

Thanks to a concerted grass-roots lobbying effort in last year's Legislature, GrowSmart Maine also created a new framework for large-scale state investments in our downtowns and Main Streets -- similar to the land preservation investments we make through the popular Land for Maine's Future program, but focused on our communities.

This June, voters will have a chance to approve a $5 million Communities for Maine's Future bond, which would support downtown infrastructure investments to cultivate more of the high-quality economic development of the sort that's happening in Gardiner.

In these fiscally constrained times, Maine's public and private sectors need their investments to go further. Focusing economic development efforts on our downtowns and Main Streets doesn't merely foster small business growth and new entrepreneurship; it also enhances the Maine "brand," the vibrant qualities of our towns and cities.

The Community for Maine's Future bond will give Maine a running start toward economic recovery.

Bonita L. Pothier is board chairwoman of GrowSmart Maine. She lives in Biddeford, where she is manager of the Key Bank branch.

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