Originally published in The Weekly Packet, July 24, 2014
Is downtown Blue Hill dying—or just changing?
Main Street, in Blue Hill, Maine is quiet on a mid-July Sunday afternoon—the height of tourist season—with a vacant building and closed shops.
by Anne Berleant
These days, there are plenty of eyes on downtown Blue Hill. A recent planning board hearing on allowing Jordan-Fernald Funeral Home onto Main Street drew a crowd of residents and lasted hours. The Blue Hill Co-op has announced its decision to move out of downtown to South Street. Two prime locations on Main Street stand empty: the former 66 Steak & Seafood restaurant and New Cargoes retail shop.
“Do I think our downtown is in trouble? Yes, I do,” said Selectman and downtown business owner John Bannister.
Does it need professional help, as neighbors Stonington and Castine have turned to, hiring economic development consultants and using state grants and agencies to improve their downtowns?
“I could see it happening,” Bannister said.
Fellow Selectman Jim Schatz agreed. “I really think it would be helpful to listen to those folks. But there’s been a resistance to that kind of outsider consultation,” he said.
When Stonington “went through a real tough time,” in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was faced with its own choice, said Stonington Town Manager Kathleen Billings-Pezaris. “You could go two ways: dying out or revitalizing.”
Stonington chose to envision what kind of town it wanted to be, focusing on its year-round lobster fishing industry, yet connecting that to tourism.
“The town’s planning board played a role,” Billings-Pezaris continued. “That’s where you have to have some strong leadership.”
Castine, on its part, has approved $20,000 to $30,000 for economic development consultants for the last 2-1/2 years, yet its zoning ordinance restricts any new business, outside of a small home-occupied one, to the small downtown area.
Blue Hill has no zoning ordinance, by choice of its residents, and a planning board that’s “there to perform a clerical function, primarily,” said Planning Board Chairman Peter d’Entremont. A funeral home may move into a vacant storefront on Main Street, a bank may expand into neighboring properties that once housed individual businesses. Meanwhile, Rite Aid, TradeWinds, Dunkin’ Donuts, The Bay School, NAPA Auto Parts and others have spread down South Street over the last 15 years.
The development of South Street may be the de facto vision of Blue Hill. A comprehensive plan approved in 1999 earmarked South Street and Mines Road for development, and a 2006 attempt at updating the plan (rejected by voters) also pointed to the two roads for growth, stating, “We have undertaken the first steps toward management of our own future by proposing some directions that the town should consider taking to encourage the type of growth we want to see in the future.”
The responsibility of local government
“I hear people say, ‘Why don’t we do something about the village?’” Schatz said. “I don’t know what to do.”
He and Bannister agree that town government’s primary responsibility is to maintain the infrastructure of the village: water, sewer, sidewalks, and, in Bannister’s words, being “responsive to local complaints to specific issues…[But] without a direct government agency involved, you rely in general on feedback of your citizens.”
In the case of the Jordan-Fernald Funeral Home move to Main Street, residents were “late to the party,” Bannister said, showing up for a public hearing held by the planning board just before its vote, after the business had submitted the necessary documents, and signed a two-year lease to rent a portion of the building on the corner of Main and Water streets.
“[A funeral home] is not just appropriate and conducive to a thriving, wonderful downtown. I’m not sure that’s the image you want on your Main Street,”said Bannister
“You can’t zone businesses out,” said Schatz, adding that the mentality of the planning board, after some “internal struggle” is “the less control the better.”
“One of the beautiful things of being a small town is the lack of a huge government organization,” Bannister said. The planning board has “a fair amount of wiggle room…And I think you want that. You want some room to interpret.”
Brad Emerson, a local business owner who has served on the library and Kneisel Hall boards of trustees, has a different perspective.
“Blue Hill tends to be a little naive about the process,” he said. “I have attended the various planning board public meetings…and I was struck again and again by people who have different visions about Blue Hill. There doesn’t seem to be a consensus about how Blue Hill should grow and what should be done.”
“The only thing that’s going to work is a grassroots educational effort from the ground up,” rather than just “showing up for each individual issue before the planning board.”
D’Entremont said the planning board wants to update the comprehensive plan to address “not so much what the town should be, but the issues the town faces.” A good plan “does not make projections [or] say ‘ought to [or] ‘ought not to.’”
The board approval of the funeral home “attached stiff conditions,” he said. “I like the fact that Blue Hill doesn’t have zoning. Along with that comes the responsibility to be a good neighbor. That has more or less worked.”
In the eyes of the merchants
Not everyone agrees that a funeral home in downtown’s center spells the death of downtown. Sarah Pebworth, who owns the Blue Hill Inn, said her customers travel from Washington, D.C., Boston and New York City for an authentic Maine vacation. “I would be shocked if someone decided not to stay because there was a funeral home on Main Street,” she said. “They’re far more upset that there’s no restaurant open on Monday night or shops aren’t open after 4:30 p.m.”
She said the “easy answer” to issues facing downtown would be that the Blue Hill Peninsula Chamber of Commerce and selectmen should be watching out for the health of downtown Blue Hill. But for quality economic development, “I really think we need to throw money at it…If we hired the right person, it would really help. I love what Castine did.”
“Castine is very organized,” said SaraSara’s owner Sara Leighton, who opened a branch of her clothing store in downtown Castine and is a member of its merchants association and promotions committee. The town of Castine has done “a lot of specific things to bring the downtown back…The [merchants] are all very active. There’s not a lot of that in Blue Hill.”
Leighton pointed out that the different extremes in zoning shown by the two towns come out of the same desire: “wanting to keep the town the same and not wanting change.”
The chamber of commerce, she said, is “in an odd position because it represents the whole Peninsula.”
Johanna Barrett, the new executive director of the Blue Hill Peninsula Chamber of Commerce, recognizes its role of supporting “cottage businesses” like plumbers and computer services throughout the surrounding towns.
As a recent transplant to Blue Hill, Barrett’s fresh eye has noticed the lack of an official welcome to visitors through signs, noting “the first indication you’re coming into Blue Hill” from Ellsworth is a transfer station. “In terms of branding, that’s a liability.”
People come to Blue Hill for its physical beauty, local food and “a long tradition of fine arts and fine crafts,” she said. “Those things need to be at the forefront” of any development plan.
Connecting South Street and downtown
If the only room for growth lies outside of Main Street, then, especially with the relocation of the Co-op and Bagaduce Music Lending Library, can South Street become part of what is considered downtown Blue Hill?
Barrett spoke of “the enormous potential for collaboration between South Street and Main Street,” with each addressing different needs for the different populations, and, between the two, the ability to strike a “balance between year round and summer residents.”
From the perspective of the planning board, d’Entremont envisions a tram running up Tenney Hill on a cable, transporting shoppers from downtown to a more pedestrian-friendly South Street. “There’s still time” to make South Street work for pedestrians, he said.
Schatz noted an existing walking path from the old town fountain on Parker Point Road to the South Street property recently purchased by the Co-op. The design proposed by the Co-op emphasizes foot traffic, a vision Schatz views as feasible for all of South Street. “Absolutely,” he said. “The town should encourage it. The town and the taxpayers should participate” in making it happen.
“South Street is really something to reckon with,” d’Entremont said. “I told my fellow planning board members [to] interview people on South Street…find out what they want.” Answers, he said are “sort of coming.”
However, Bannister is unsure whether the town can support more businesses on South Street. “It’s not quite ready to be booming,” he said. “I don’t think downtown is going to go away. [But] it’s going to go through a few hard years.”