ELLSWORTH — Though 40 miles apart, the cities of Belfast and Ellsworth are about the same in age and size, and both have gone through their share of economic troubles.
Ellsworth once was the seat of a thriving lumber industry, while Belfast hosted shoe manufactories and a poultry industry. Those trades have come and gone, but while downtown Belfast has blossomed with a diverse set of restaurants, cafes and retail stores, Ellsworth is still saddled with empty storefronts along its Main Street.
As the head of the Downtown Ellsworth Association, Cara Romano is here to change that, and to help stir up some ideas, she brought in an expert from Belfast.
Breanna Pinkham Bebb is the executive director of Our Town Belfast, an organization that helps its downtown thrive while preserving its historic landscape. Bebb spoke to a few dozen Ellsworth residents last Thursday at the Ellsworth Public Library, but she was quick to point out that Ellsworth wouldn’t get anywhere by just following in Belfast’s footsteps.
“I’m not here to tell you how to be like Belfast,” Bebb said. “Talk about what’s unique to Ellsworth. Don’t say, ‘Gee, wouldn’t it be really exciting if there were the world’s largest baseball in Ellsworth?’ But it has nothing to do with who you are as a community.”
Instead, Bebb outlined the Four-Point Approach trademarked by the National Main Street Center, which is a subsidiary of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The first point was design: where organizers develop guidelines for how attractive the downtown looks. That includes parks, public art in unexpected areas and attractive storefronts.
Belfast has a “walking museum” that shows people historic buildings and different anecdotes from the town’s past.
“We try to think of different things that move people,” said Bebb, who mentioned a bench program in Belfast where artists made a scavenger hunt of special benches around town that people could track down. “It was a nice way to get people to explore neighborhoods they might not have otherwise gone to.
The next point was promotions, where the downtown hosts events to encourage visitors to shop downtown and get to know local businesses.
Bebb explained how Our Town Belfast buys ads on television and lets local businesses pitch in a few hundred dollars so that they can get easier advertizing. Events such as street parties and public menorah lightings during Chanukah celebrations help bring more people into participating businesses. If the events are held later at night, it gives businesses that close at 5 p.m. exposure to people who don’t get off work until 5.
“Make it so that there’s always something to do in Ellsworth, Maine,” Bebb said.
The overall impact of the first two points was to promote an experience-driven mindset. In an earlier Ellsworth American article, Romano spoke of how handwritten signs next to products can help customers feel more personally connected to the store. The same effect happens with public art installations or quirky features like purple asters growing out of a sink in the middle of the sidewalk in Belfast. When people discover these features they tend to feel more connected more with the downtown, and perhaps more ready to live, work and set up a business there.
Still, a town can’t grow very fast without the right economic incentives to attract businesses, and Bebb’s third point was economic vitality. She explained how Belfast hosts events such as coffee clubs, where business owners get together to share ideas.
“It’s about building community among your businesses,” she said. “They can say, ‘Hey, was your December kind of off?’ It gives them that opportunity to share with each other.”
But when asked about more specific policies, like having landlords lower rents to encourage businesses to set up shop, Bebb had fewer suggestions. She said that Belfast never did anything like that, but other towns like Biddeford have held Main Street Challenge incentive programs. Through these challenges, entrepreneurs can apply for a few months of free rent and $20,000 to test out their ideas in a storefront downtown.
“It’s like a ‘Shark Tank’ type thing,” said Bebb referring to the ABC show where entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to investors.
Finally, the fourth point was organization, whereby a nonprofit like Our Town Belfast or the Downtown Ellsworth Association becomes assembles a board of directors and becomes a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, so that it can more easily apply for grants. That is the point where Romano is right now.
“This being our first year we’re just trying to listen,” said Romano, who also works as the owner of (Kot), an arts store in the Maine Grind Building. “Listen to what people want and what needs to happen.”
As the Downtown Ellsworth Association becomes a nonprofit, Romano recommends that people get in touch with the group through Facebook or by subscribing to its online newsletter. The group doesn’t have a website yet, but to subscribe to the newsletter visit the group’s Facebook page or send an email to [email protected]
“Through our newsletter list people can read what the organization is working on and how they can become involved,” Romano said.