May 16, 2022

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Freeport plan would add neighborhood appeal to its downtown

Freeport Economic Development Corp. President Mary Davis and Town Council Chairman Dan Piltch are helping lead the effort to transform Freeport’s downtown from a place many locals avoid in the summer to one where they’d be happy to live, work and play all year. The outlet center Freeport Village Station is of particular interest to the urban design firm working with the town. The village-like collection of stores could be reconfigured as a collection of restaurants with plenty of outdoor seating, the design firm said. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

There’s an old adage in commercial development that “retail follows rooftops.”

In most cases, this is true – just look at any population center. When enough people move into an area, shop owners, restaurateurs and service providers take notice and follow suit. 

But Freeport is an anomaly, with far more large retailers than could be justified by its population of under 9,000. Fewer than 300 of those people are estimated to live downtown. 

But town officials hope to see that number increase as e-commerce continues to push large retailers to abandon smaller markets, resulting in falling tax revenue for Freeport.

Of course, it’s not as simple as slapping a few new apartment buildings in the center of what has long been an outlet shopper’s heaven. 

For the past two years, town officials have been working with Boston urban design firm Principle Group to try to reimagine Freeport’s town center as more of a traditional downtown that meets the needs of residents and the millions of tourists who visit each year. The firm has taken business and resident input for months, and the plan is on track to be finalized in May.

Russell Preston, Principle Group’s founder, said the plan for downtown Freeport is similar to that of the quintessential New England village: It should be the heart of the community and a place for everyone to enjoy.

“I think Freeport is in the process of reinventing itself and understanding that downtown can become a neighborhood again,” he said, adding that the neighborhood would have jobs, industry, corner stores and more.

Preston sees outlet center Freeport Village Station as a sort of “catalyst site.” In his plan, the village-like development in the center of downtown could be reconfigured as a collection of restaurants with plenty of outdoor seating.

Downtown would also become home to significantly more than 258 people. Preston couldn’t give an exact number – that’s ultimately up to the town and will be clearer later on in the process, he said – but it’s not unreasonable to think it could have 2,800 to 3,600 residents. That range fits with historical peaks, he said.

Depot Street could be remade as a treelined street with housing on each side. More housing could be added elsewhere, in a variety of forms.

There would be trails connecting downtown to other areas of Freeport and plenty of green spaces and art throughout. Streets would be reconfigured to be more pedestrian-focused than vehicle-focused.

“Freeport has good bones,” Preston said.

Freeport Town Council Chair Dan Piltch and Mary Davis, president of Freeport Economic and Development Corp., at Freeport Village Station on Saturday. Some large chain retailers have left the town’s retail hub in recent years. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

VACANCIES UP, REVENUE DOWN

While the “Freeport Downtown Vision Plan” has only officially been in progress for two years, officials have had economic diversification and revitalization on their radar for at least four years now.

The Freeport Economic Development Corp. homed in on the downtown as a focus area around 2017 or 2018, said Mary Davis, the group’s president and a member of the downtown vision leadership team.

“As vacancies began to appear, it made us nervous,” she said. “That became a calling for us to start to look at what was needed next for downtown Freeport.”

First, town officials and the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Freeport leaned into rebranding as an “experiential” arts and culture destination with a 2018 cultural plan from the alliance. 

The arts and culture group successfully renovated and converted the Main Street First Parish Church into Meetinghouse Arts, a 200-seat performance hall, gallery and creative space. The church is still operational. 

With that project completed, the focus has now shifted to how to transition Freeport’s downtown from a place that many locals avoid in the summer to one where they’d be happy to live, work and play all year.

Taxable sales from retail stores, grocery stores, restaurants, hotels and other businesses in Freeport peaked in 2016 at $332.1 million and then steadily declined until bottoming out at $218.8 million during the height of the pandemic in 2020. Sales rebounded significantly in 2021 at $314 million, according to data from Maine Revenue Services.

Commercial vacancy rates have followed a similar trend. By the end of 2017, vacancy rates had risen from 6.4 percent to 7.5 percent. With some fluctuation, they continued to trend upward over the next several years, with rates generally between 8 and 8.9 percent.

The pandemic caused vacancies to spike in 2021, with a 12.4 percent rate in the second quarter of the year, but numbers have started to trend downward again. Some new leases have been signed and the vacancy rate now sits at 8 percent, according to the economic development group.

This, according to Davis, has been the result of a concentrated recruitment effort to bring more locally or regionally owned businesses into town.

So far, it seems to be working.

Freeport Market, a small collective of artisans, filled the spot left by Calvin Klein in Freeport Village Station. The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association is now set up in the historic B. H. Bartol Library building, which was vacated by Abercrombie and Fitch several years ago. There’s also a new coffee shop, an oyster bar and a fish market.

These changes all help build variety, but it will take more to accomplish the balance of one-third local businesses, one-third regional and one-third national that Preston says makes for a successful downtown.

Customers walk from store to store at Freeport Village Station in downtown Freeport on Saturday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

HOUSING FIRST OR ALL AT ONCE?

So how do they attract more local and regional businesses?

To Kristina Egan, the answer is clear. 

“The key to the plan is to welcome the housing,” she said.

Local shops with character, coffee shops where people can work, more restaurants, startup and business incubation space, an arts scene, night life – all of these are needed to help revitalize downtown, said Egan, a former town councilor and executive director of the Greater Portland Council of Governments. 

“But that can’t be supported unless there are more people living downtown,” she said. “We have to create the conditions – we can’t just wish for it. The conditions are local people.” 

While that is true, according to Preston, it’s not quite so simple. 

“It all has to happen at once,” he said. “There’s no silver bullet.” 

It’s what Davis said is a “chicken-and-the-egg” scenario.

If someone is working to redevelop Freeport Village Station into a collection of restaurants, for example, that might get the attention of a developer who might want to look into Freeport for apartment buildings. If a restaurateur sees housing going in, they might decide it’s worth it to open in Freeport. But without one of those things, another might not happen.

The town also needs to make it easier for businesses and developers to get up and running, Preston said.

“There’s a perception in Freeport that it’s a challenge to open a business or develop a property,” he said.

The town council is working to rectify that.

Recently, councilors lowered some of the parking requirements for new development, adjusted and increased density allowances in some areas, raised the 45-foot height cap for buildings and loosened the barriers for food trucks to operate in town. Other efforts are still in the works, such as some zoning overhauls and simplifying a complicated design review process, said Dan Piltch, council chair.

“We’re trying to loosen the reins a little bit and be less restrictive than we have in the past,” he said.

Piltch, who is also on the downtown vision leadership team, said he’s excited to help guide Freeport through what he called a “once-in-a-generation moment.”

Some of their efforts, such as the recent installation of a skate park and some seating downtown, will have an immediate impact. Others, such as large-scale infrastructure improvements, will take more time.

“This is not a map of what we’re going to do over the next 12 months,” Piltch said. “It’s a vision of what we’re going to be marching (toward) over the next 10 years (or more).”

At the same time, nobody wants the plan to just sit there awaiting execution.

“We want a plan we can activate and do,” Davis said. “We want it done.”

The town is hosting an open house to go over a series of draft plans from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at Freeport Town Hall, 30 Main St., in downtown Freeport.


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