UNITY — The town’s Economic Development Committee is ready to move beyond visioning and brainstorming to start working on projects that will help make Unity a destination.
To help them get started, the committee hired GrowSmart Maine, an organization that works with communities to spur economic development and revitalization while preserving the aspects of a town that residents already like. The Unity Foundation connected the committee with GrowSmart and paid for the service, said Mary Leaming, chairwoman of the 11-person committee.
About 60 residents attended the first meeting held by the committee and GrowSmart on Sunday to discuss what they think a destination is, what they would like to see happen in town and what they don’t want to happen.
Committee member Joe Saltalamachia, who also works as director of admissions at Unity College, spoke at the beginning of the meeting about how people had been discussing the need for a hotel in town. Most people who come to visit the college, he said, stay in nearby Belfast or Waterville.
“Next week, I have 40 families visiting,” he said. “Those are 40 families that are going to take their business to another town.”
But the committee is expanding the question beyond the type of lodging Unity needs. Leaming said the committee, which is more than a year old, has been discussing the idea of a hotel for a while, but they decided to “take one step back” and look at the bigger picture.
“What does it mean to be a destination?” she said in an interview.
Unity residents started to answer that question during the brainstorming session facilitated by Nancy Smith, executive director of GrowSmart. People in the audience said a destination, for them, meant a place with a brand, a place that’s welcoming and a place that’s good-looking. While they named many benefits of becoming a destination — a larger tax base, an ability to attract a more diverse populous, a thriving climate for businesses — they also talked about what they didn’t want to lose, such as the town’s peace and quiet, its ecology and its affordability.
Smith said the next step would be to get specific. GrowSmart would hold another community meeting to lay out specific ideas from the first and get feedback, which would serve as the basis for phase two of the project, she said. In phase two, GrowSmart would bring in expertise for the town as it navigates turning some of the ideas into reality.
What comes to fruition will depend largely on who’s willing to do what, Smith said.
“We’re looking for what are the ideas that have commitment in a community,” she said.
GrowSmart has completed work with 10 towns so far and is working with four more — Unity and three towns in the Katahdin region, Smith said. Most towns need more help coming up with a vision, she said, so they start with smaller projects. For example, in Wilton the town decided to put up a fence around the library so it could safely hold programs for children, and now it’s also a spot for concerts.
Because Unity’s residents already have put some thought into what they want, Smith said she expects the outcome to be “more significant.”
There are no definite plans for any projects yet, Leaming said, but she hopes that this community process with GrowSmart “generates excitement.”
“We’re really dependent on this grass-roots energy,” she said. “We’re tired of talking about things.”
Madeline St. Amour — 861-9239