Friday, October 05, 2007

Can we revitalize our downtowns?

It’s been a terribly busy stretch for me over the past two weeks. I’ve been involved with multiple projects, including the launch of a new WorkReady™ training in Lewiston, where I’m based in my day job.

Last week, I spent a bit of time in Waterville and met Faye Nicholson, from REM, a wonderful, community-based organization. Faye and I got a chance to chat and she invited me to contribute an article for their quarterly publication, Local Voices. I happily complied, putting the finishing touches on it, last night.

It appears to me that Maine has a number of communities like Waterville, possessing solid infrastructure and potentially viable downtowns, which may prove to be attractive to young professionals and boomers, whose children have left the nest. Both groups have begun looking for alternatives to suburban sameness. The former Hathaway Shirt property, now dubbed the Hathaway Creative Center, could become a magnet for downtown revitalization.

Other communities in Maine with long term potential might be Skowhegan (if you overlook perspectives from outsiders) and even Augusta. Sadly, most Mainers know little or nothing about either community and people visiting the state rarely venture up Route 201 to Skowhegan and if they do, they are apt to buzz through downtown, on their way to Jackman and points north. Augusta, as seen from I-95, is a nightmarish scenario, with the Civic Center area and now, the Western Avenue exit, veritable advertisements for how not to build sustainable economies. If you manage to make it downtown however, you’d be struck by the architecture and the beauty of the Kennebec, while also noticing the lack of much vitality in our state capital’s downtown.

I recently found the blog of Jack Schultz, a fellow with some interesting ideas about economic development, particularly as it applies to rural America. Schultz has my dream job—getting paid to travel the country, speaking to groups and discovering pockets of vitality all over the contiguous 48 states. He really is an advocate for small-town growth and the revitalization of downtown areas, the antithesis of most of what passes for economic development in much of our own state.

For my readers in Maine, I’m putting in a plug for the upcoming Summit 2007, which will be happening in two weeks, on October 19th. This should be an interesting day, at least for those of us who are interested in the recommendations of the Brookings Report, Charting Maine's Future, which fits well with my own ideas for smart growth that I developed long before it became somewhat fashionable to talk about sustainable development. Ironically, the event is being held at the Augusta Civic Center, which is the antithesis of smart, sustainable development, as well as the mess across the street at the Augusta Marketplace, with its Wal-Mart Superstore, Sam’s Club, Home Depot, Old Navy, Kohl's and other big-box monstrosities, where the locals come to offer their sacrifices at the alter of mass consumption. (I actually blogged about this and included photos, but can't find it in my archives?)

I’m hoping to get a chance to do some photo-blogging in two weeks and I’ll certainly report out from my time spent at the conference.


weasel said...

Don't forget the Juice conference in Rockland also, Nov 16 & 17....

There's a lot of good ideas around urban renewal in this state: now if we could only get some action!

tybor said...

I recently moved to Augusta to work on the efforts to help protect Moosehead Lake from Plum Creek's sprawling development plan. Your description of Augusta's corpse of a downtown and unsustainable more recent "growth" reiterates the frustration my roommates and I have had with this city's layout since we've moved here. Thanks for sharing your perspective. I actually found out a few minutes before reading this post that I'm going to help staff a booth with the Natural Resources Council of Maine at the Summit on the 19th. You should stop by so we can rant about Augusta's terrible planning and I can teach you about what you can already imagine are the dangers of Plum Creek's proposal.

Thanks again
Rachel Tybor

Jim said...

Ranting, I am good at. I will definitely look for the NRCM booth on Friday. I’m looking forward to the Summit. I hope it takes an “honest” look at the issues and isn’t just a big cheerleading event for the administration currently in power.

Maine is at an important crossroads and the decisions made over the next couple of years could make or break the state from a variety of issue-oriented perspectives.

As a new Mainer, you obviously see some of the tremendous natural advantages that the state has. For far too long however, our natural advantages and resources have been exploited by business leaders, politicians and developers, with most of the state’s residents receiving little from this exploitation. I see that scenario being played out again with Plum Creek.

It doesn’t always have to be a choice between jobs and despoiling the natural environment, but far to often that’s how it gets framed. Hopefully the work that you and others are doing will help posit this in a way that ordinary Mainers can understand.

Once you change the natural habitat and lose pristine acreage, you can never bring it back.