Downtown revitalization

With the closing of J&B Atlantic Co. on April 30, the windows of yet another downtown Ellsworth storefront will become vacant. Owners Jon Hutchins and Bill Sanborn cited changing buying trends and the struggle of independent businesses around the country as factors in their decision to shutter the business, which offered “unique home accessories, local flair, furniture, fibers, antiques and more.”

With that decision, two large retail spaces on opposite sides of the Store Street-Main Street intersection will now stand empty. Just over a year ago, the neighboring Grasshopper Shop closed its doors after decades of operation.

Hutchins and Sanborn remain hopeful that other businesses may surface to lease space in the 87-year-old Tracy Building, but the departure of two major retail enterprises in little more than a year raises questions about what it will take to revitalize downtown Ellsworth.

City officials are eagerly looking ahead to 2018, when the Jackson Laboratory’s new mouse production operation in the former Lowe’s building at Kingsland Crossing is scheduled to open, with a work force expected to grow from 110 employees initially to 230 when the facility is fully built out. But any resulting economic boost may be muted, at least in part, by two factors. First, it is likely that a significant number of those employees may well be folks already living in Ellsworth or the surrounding area — folks who already contribute their dollars to the local economy. Second, once the nonprofit Jackson Lab commences operations at the new facility, its will qualify for an exemption from local property taxes, which have totaled $160,640 over the past three years.

The fact remains that, however successful the new Jackson Lab operation may be, the revitalization of downtown Ellsworth is a separate matter.

Not just here but throughout the nation, the day when grocery, pharmacy, hardware and dry goods stores formed the nucleus of a city’s downtown has faded into history. But even in today’s era of online sales and smart phones, there are communities whose downtowns are thriving centers of commerce.

A recent commentary in New York’s Ithaca Times offers some timely and cogent observations on that city’s vibrant downtown community. One reason for its success, writes the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, “is that downtown Ithaca is a hotbed for experiential retail, with a diverse range of merchants who go beyond goods and services to create a memorable, personal experience that is an increasingly sought-after antidote to the charmless efficiency of e-commerce.”

The owners of Ellsworth’s downtown storefronts — many of them two- and three-story structures — might do well to consider making their rental fees for now-empty retail space as attractive as possible, and possibly turning the upper floors into apartment living space that would bring additional residents — and their dollars — into what should be the heart of the city.

No community is immune from the Internet shopping trend. With a couple of keyboard strokes, Amazon and other major online retailers now provide the same opportunity for shopping at home that our grandparents once enjoyed with the Sears and Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogs.

But as Ithaca has proven, that doesn’t have to mean the end of bricks-and-mortar stores and a vibrant downtown. Here in Maine, the Waldo County city of Belfast, comparable to Ellsworth in many respects, provides dynamic evidence of what can be called a “recreational shopping experience,” with the growth of numerous small, independent shops that have all but eliminated empty downtown storefronts over the past decade.

With imagination, dialogue and perseverance, the same thing can happen here in Ellsworth.


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