SKOWHEGAN — A $400,000 state block grant has been approved to continue a revitalization program intended to help position downtown as a destination for cultural and food-related activities.
The money will fund the second and final phase of a makeover of the municipal parking lot downtown, a key element in improving the appearance of the central business district.
Jeffrey Hewitt, the town’s economic and community development director, said a safe, attractive downtown parking lot with trees, benches and sidewalk islands will help make Skowhegan a destination for visitors and shoppers.
Hewett said the project is especially important to attractions near the parking area, such as the proposed Run of River white water park in the Kennebec River Gorge, which runs through downtown, as well as the Skowhegan Farmers’ Market and businesses inside the Somerset Grist Mill.
“Between this project, the grist mill and other improvements we have done downtown and the walking trail across the river and the Run of River, it’s starting to get you some mass that people are saying, âGee, maybe we should start thinking about opening up something here,'” he said “It’s helping develop the downtown as a good place to come and visit. Every project is one step closer.”
Grist Mill owner Amber Lambke said the overall project will be a boon to downtown Skowhegan.
“I thinks it makes the entire downtown more attractive and significantly safer for pedestrians and projects a welcoming community,” Lambke said. “Visitors are going to want to see our local markets (and) our businesses. We have one of the most vibrant food scenes in the state.”
The work includes pedestrian walkways, light poles, trees, benches, granite curbs and directional signs. The new municipal parking lot will feature raised landscaping, including about 20 flowering trees and 15 hardwood trees, with several varieties of maple.
Construction on Phase One of the project got underway May 1 in the lot next the Grist Mill, High Street and an auto dealership.
Phase Two of the parking lot project is expected to begin in mid-July when all of the Phase One work is completed. It will include removing and replacing existing stormwater catch basins and underground piping. The existing pavement will be ground up and hauled away to be reclaimed for future use. The land then will be graded, paved and stripped for parking.
Hewett said he expects the new paving to be done quickly over three days and nights of work.
The work this summer means the new-look parking area will be ready before construction of the ambitious Run of River attraction begins next year.
The $4.3 million project will create whitewater waves in three locations to attract boaters for a park-and-play destination, waves for surfers and body boarders, and a half-mile run for rafting and kayaking. Work on the project is projected to start in October 2015.
Total funding received for the revitalization project comes to about $950,000, including $400,000 in state bond money for Phase One.
The town will provide a matching contribution of $100,000 for the project. Skowhegan’s share comes from the downtown tax increment financing, or TIF, district.
Hewett said it is worth the expense.
“I can think of three different reasons this project is important,” he said. “One, it makes the downtown parking lot pedestrian friendly, safe for people and parking. It makes it an attractive place, something that people like the looks of; and it allows us to do a project that normally would have been done straight through taxation, and we’ve picked it up through these grants.”