Gardiner city and community officials unveiled an economic development program Tuesday offering financial incentives for businesses to expand to the city’s downtown.
The goal is to attract a mix of established retailers, restaurants and professional service providers that will boost foot traffic and the economic fortunes for all downtown business.
“I believe this program is a model for all the other small towns and communities that are looking for a new economic development paradigm,” Nate Rudy, the city’s director of economic and community development, told Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce board members at their meeting Tuesday. “This is it.”
The program, Gardiner Growth Initiative, offers financial incentives such as forgivable loans for infrastructure costs, free rent for long-term leases and grants for working capital to businesses looking to open a new location in downtown Gardiner or to existing businesses to expand their footprints. Preference will be given to established, well-known businesses, as well as to businesses in industries targeted by the program, including restaurants with space for live music, and sporting goods stores.
The program has been in the works since The Bank of Maine offered to pledge $125,000 for some type of comprehensive downtown development program more than two years ago. Gardiner Main Street, a downtown revitalization organization, worked with the city and the Gardiner Board of Trade to develop the plan further last year.
Patrick Wright, the executive director of Gardiner Main Street, said at the presentation at the Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce meeting Tuesday that the goal is to create a welcoming environment for businesses looking to expand by lowering the start-up costs necessary to open a new location.
Businesses can apply for loans worth up to $50,000 that will be forgiven if the businesses stay in the city for at least five years. The loans, funded by The Bank of Maine’s $125,000 donation, must be used for fixed assets and infrastructure investments.
The Gardiner Board of Trade is giving $50,000 for grants worth up to $10,000 that can be used for working capital such as inventory.
Targeted, major infrastructure improvements to downtown buildings also will be eligible for tax breaks from the city. Councilors approved a policy in December setting the percentage of new tax revenue developers can expect to get back from the city by renovating second and third floors, installing elevators or opening a hotel.
The city has struggled at times to sustain businesses in its downtown. The most recent turnover saw one business opening and three closing in January, including Water Street Cafe, which anchored a prominent corner of the downtown.
Rudy said the public-private partnership is trying to lower the barrier of entry for businesses looking to expand that have been successful elsewhere. He said program organizers already have contacted some well-known businesses about the program, but he wouldn’t identify them.
“We feel like our downtown is a pretty inviting atmosphere for some of these name brands, household name brands, that we feel are the future of our local economy,” Rudy said before the presentation.
Start-up businesses can apply for the incentives, but the criteria for acceptance favors established Maine businesses.
Rudy said existing downtown businesses, which also could be eligible for incentives if expanding, generally have supported the program.
The Bank of Maine CEO John Everets called the incentive package “staggering” at the presentation Tuesday. He said he’s very proud that the bank, which has a location downtown and previously helped fund improvements to the city’s Waterfront Park, is involved in the program.
“I think if you’re an entrepreneur, if you have if you have a business that is successful elsewhere and you want to grow your business,” Everets said, “Gardiner is a place where you can grow your business.”