AUGUSTA — Downtown Augusta needs better parking, some public art, a bigger emphasis on the Kennebec River and a major signature event to draw more people to the historic riverfront downtown.
And the visiting team of downtown experts who made those recommendations also said it’s time to consider, and even try, making one-way Water Street into a two-way street.

“We’re going to be recommending there be at least a very serious look, and a practice run, at putting Water Street two-way,” said Roxanne Eflin, Main Street Maine coordinator, Maine Downtown Center director and senior program director of the Maine Development Foundation.

Eflin, leading a discussion of the findings and recommendations of a team of outside experts who spent three days examining all things downtown Augusta this week, said statistics show downtowns with two-way traffic do better than those with only one-way streets.

In March, a bill proposed by Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, to require the state Department of Transportation to study if Water Street should be converted from one-way to two-way traffic was rejected by state lawmakers, in large part because of the estimated $50,000 cost of the study.

Downtown merchants have said changing the traffic pattern has been a topic of discussion downtown since the 1960s.

Visiting team members, some of whom said they were “welcomed to town with some parking citations,” said the downtown needs parking that is friendlier to both visitors and, especially, residents who live downtown and thus need to park overnight.

Malcolm Collins, a preservation architect and former director of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission who examined the downtown’s design and infrastructure as part of the visit, said the downtown’s parking rules are not user-friendly and it can be hard for people to figure out where the public parking is downtown. He said as demand for parking increases, it will likely make sense to add another deck to expand the nearby parking garage that is just above downtown Water Street.

Collins also said it was a “glaring realization for me there really is no public art in downtown Augusta. Which for a capital city, is not good.” He said University of Maine at Augusta would be a good partner to help bring some art downtown.

UMA and art were also floated as a potential focus of something else the city is lacking: a major annual signature event to bring people and attention downtown.

Eflin and Shannon Haines, executive director of the Maine Film Center and past director of Waterville Main Street, said one of Augusta’s strengths is its many events, including AugustaFest, which draw people downtown throughout the year, but that the city needs a major event to put it on the map.

They suggested expanding the Light on Water art walk, which started in 2012 and featured light and water-themed art throughout the downtown, could be one way to create a signature event in Augusta.

“It could be expanded into a signature event, you could incorporate a sculpture competition, you could project light out onto the river, use light to make downtown really attractive at night,” Haines said. “It would be unique — nobody else is doing this in Maine.”

About 35 people attended the visiting downtown team’s presentation on its findings and recommendations. They spoke at Riverback Dance Club on Water Street, with the Kennebec River visible through the windows just outside the downtown business.

Among Augusta’s strengths, visiting team members said, is that about 1,000 people work downtown, some 40,000 people, many of them state workers, come into the greater Augusta area every day to work, there are numerous conferences and meetings in Augusta, and people come here to shop already.

“Augusta is already considered a destination,” said visiting team member Audrey Lovering, the first full time executive director of Skowhegan Main Street and former community development director in Rockland, “What you have to look at is how to attract people to the downtown, to shop, work, live and play.”

Two of the visitors, Rodney Lynch, a former regional planner and city planner in Auburn who is in private consulting now, and Lovering, even did some under-cover shopping in downtown stores, and reported on how they were greeted — or in some cases weren’t — and what they saw, heard and smelled.

Lovering said overall they found Augusta’s downtown shops clean, attractive, welcoming and containing a wide variety of products. They said they were greeted upon entry at five stores, asked if they needed help finding anything at five stores, had conversations at three stores but only after the visitors initiated the conversation and, at two stores “they looked at me as if I were there to steal something.”

The Thursday event at which the findings were presented also provided several residents and business owners with their first chance to meet Steve Pecukonis, hired this week as Augusta Downtown Alliance’s first downtown manager and executive director.

Pecukonis, a former business management consultant who is the long-time facilitator of Kennebec Leadership Institute, said downtowns are making a comeback across the country and he looks forward to working hard with local business owners and other community members to revitalize the city’s downtown.

“A lot of people fondly remember the downtowns of the 50s and 60s, but those downtowns are not coming back,” Pecukonis said. “We need to work together to design and build the downtown of the 21st century. It’s not going to be quick or easy. It’s new territory for us.”

The downtown program uses a national model based on four points — organization, promotions, economic restructuring and design.

The Augusta Downtown Alliance, Eflin said, will receive a written report based on the visiting team’s findings in a few weeks. She said the plan could be the template to provide guidance for downtown Augusta’s next two to four years of revitalization.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647
[email protected]