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New approach to improve downtown
RUMFORD -- Hardly a day goes by when you don't hear someone talking about what downtown Rumford used to be. And while there remains good things to see and do on The Island, it is in need of improvements.
Some 50 people gathered in the Rumford Falls Auditorium on Jan. 29 to set goals for those improvements, with the hope the help for the follow through efforts will be enhanced by becoming a Maine Downtown Network Community.
Business owners, residents and downtown shoppers joined selectmen, the town manager and members of Envision Rumford for a presentation by Maine Downtown Center Director Roxanne Eflin, who has invited this town to apply for the program, which stimulates new ideas, develops leaders, and provides common ground for solving problems and advancing issues.
Town Manager Carlo Puiia began the two-hour session by noting, "I've seen this Envision Rumford group over the last year accomplish a number of items and at every meeting, there's this nice energy in the room from a dozen people or more. I think everyone here has that same interest; they want Rumford to be better than it currently is. We love what we have, but we know we need to improve it some."
"The people who have been coming to the meetings and talking about this, it's a breath of fresh air and when you live in Rumford, you always need a little more fresh air, don't you? Little humor!" he added.
Eflin, the senior program director of the Maine Development Foundation (MDF), described the Maine Downtown Center program.
"The program is about volunteers who care about their community and want to see heart of their community thrive and be vibrant."
Fostering downtown revitalization, the program is currently working in 30 communities representing every county in Maine. The Maine Downtown Center program helps to build the organizational and funding base and offers access to training from local, state and national professionals.
On a large display screen, she showed that since 2002 in nine of the network communities, 1,075 new jobs have been created, with 228 net new businesses, encompassing 191,973 volunteer hours.
"We use a little bit of public money to leverage as much private investment as they can. For every dollar that's invested in a main street program, more than $27 is reinvested into the community," said Eflin.
The program uses a four-point approach -- organization, design, promotions and economic restructuring. Underneath those four legs, she said there are eight principles for success. Each one of these is a full-day training.
"Comprehensive means you're working all four of these points at the same time. There may be times when your promotions committee and has everyone's interest and all hands are on deck to do the Fourth of July. And then you may have time when everybody is focused on historic preservation; you've got two or three facade projects going on at the same time. And maybe it's time to really get organized. There are silos but we don't call them silos. They called them committees and there always working together," said Eflin.
"It's very incremental. We say baby steps are good steps. And that's one thing that really sets Main Street apart from a lot of other programs. Every step that you take, even if it's very small, is a forward step and that's okay, as long as you're moving forward. It could be an awning, a sign, a flower barrel. It's the magic of Main Street. It's a domino effect, and one thing begins to build on the others. It works. It's really amazing," she said.
"It's all about self-help. If not for you, who? If not for all of you in this room, who is going to do this? Who's going to take care of your downtown? It's you. It's up to you. It's all about public/private partnerships. It's different from a Chamber of Commerce, that might be just geared to servicing its members. Main Street is very unique in this way. It is all hands on deck. It's the residents, the downtown merchants, the downtown property owners, the town and this valley. It's all the organizations, the Boy Scouts, the schools. It's everybody, because you're all focused on the heart of your community. And once you get that right, pretty much everything else is going to be okay, too," said Eflin.
"Work with your existing assets. You have incredible bone structure. I'm just so impressed with the historic buildings that you have downtown. It truly is stunning. If you can just take that, work with that, it's the special thing that's sets you apart from everybody else. It's about quality and making sure that the work that you're doing, the things that you're doing are done with quality. If you can only do two or benches, or four or five light posts, and that's how much money you've got to do, do it with quality, do it well and do it right because that really sets the tone," she said.
"And it's all about change. For some people, change is scary. Change can be scary. Change is gonig to happen and you might as well make a change how you want to make a change. It's action-oriented. There's never a dull day on Main Street," said Eflin.
She said they accept a few communities every year to be a part of the network program. They would like to include Kingfield in 2013 as well.
The deadline for the application is at the end of March. If Rumford is accepted, it will be announced at the state MDF conference on May 31.
Membership requires a two-year commitment, with dues ranging from $500 to $700 per year annually based on population. Occasional reports are required such as the number of volunteers participating and that the effort is making progress.
"So why do we care about these downtowns across Maine and our country? Because this is where shared memories happen. This is where people of all ages come together. This is where people remember. You all have you're own special memory, maybe when you were little, what it meant to come downtown and what appeals to you now. Those are memories and feelings that you just cannot take away," said Eflin.
"It's also where all kinds of different businesses can be attracted. They can be your entrepreneurial zone, your incubator zone, small or larger businesses. It's a great opportunity to introduce arts and culture to the downtown. It's just a great melting pot of diverse businesses that can get a foothold and really make your downtown function well and work for you as far as taxes, as far as a return on investment," she said.
Following the presentation, the audiance was divided into four groups -- organization, design, promotions and economic restructuring -- for a 20-minute brainstorming session. The directive was for each group to establish three goals to pursue.
A leader from each group then announced to the entire group what those goals are.
From organization: 1. Work on structure, 2. Have a budget, 3. Outreach to the community.
From restructuring: 1. Offer space for three to four months for pop-up businesses, 2. Make existing businesses a priority, 3. Evaluate existing businesses and their needs.
From promotions: 1. A slogan to build on the national resources of the area, 2. Planning more activities in the downtown, 3. Build on the history that's here.
From design: 1. Fixing sidewalks, add greenery, improve pot containers, 2. Use empty store fronts for art displays by kids and photography, 3. Cleaning up the road area leading into the downtown.
People on these committees agreed to begin meeting to further discuss these goals, even before the decision on accepting Rumford as a Maine Downtown Network Community.
Resident Kevin Saisi added that the town also has a plan from the Downtown Rivalization Committee that they can draw from.
Puiia said he's proud of Envision Rumford, which celebrated its one-year anniversary last fall.
"The energy is here. Encourage other people you know. We want to engage the businesses as much as we can. They have a lot of valuable information for us. But I think we're on the right track as far as trying to become a network community under the Maine Downtown Center," he said.
MDF is a private, non-profit 501(c)(3) corporation, created by the Governor and Legislature in 1978 with a broad mandate to promote the economy. Funding comes from a variety of sources including fee-for-service, private contributions, memberships, foundations and state government contracts.
MDF is non-partisan and delivers the highest quality fact-driven work through its programs and through economic research conducted by professional staff. MDF oversees seven programs with a variety of focuses ranging from community development, to leadership training, to workforce development. MDF staff members conduct a range of economic research analysis for public and private interests on issues across the economy. All work serves as the basis for extensive and ongoing educational and outreach efforts.