The Portland Press Herald today has a fascinating story on how Belfast, Maine is breathing new life into its downtown by helping small businesses. Here are some highlights:
Since last fall, 28 new businesses have opened in this midcoast seaside city, and another 19 have expanded or relocated.
The new shops are filling formerly vacant storefronts and injecting life into a downtown once dominated by long-departed heavy industries . . .
City officials also helped entrepreneurs Mary Johnston and her husband, Garry Conklin.
The couple, who moved to Maine a few months ago from Cambridge, N.Y., scouted Maine all spring seeking the best city to open a small business.
They called economic development departments in different towns, but sometimes waited weeks for appointments. Belfast officials, however, offered to meet them the next day, and helped the couple find a location . . .
In addition to the new businesses, the Maine Downtown Center designated Belfast a “Main Street Maine” community in June. The designation means Belfast has access to resources and studies to help revitalize the city’s historic downtown.
And community development group MaineStream Finance began offering “Incubators Without Walls,” a course in small business development, in Belfast earlier this year.
Slocum said new businesses have diversified the local economy, which historically was dominated by heavy industries like shipbuilding, shoe and clothing manufacturing and poultry processing.
We’ve seen so many towns that forget that the “feel” from city hall is the first impression that folks and businesses get from a town. The hiring of a new economic director was likely the source of the new “energy and enthusiasm” discussed in the article. Sometimes new blood is necessary to putting a new face on city hall.
This combined with the a willingness to work with businesses, such as the zoning flexibility with the shipyard folks, is vital to supporting small businesses who lack the resources to wind their way through a cold, bureaucratic maze. And it’s small businesses, like in Belfast, that will save our towns.