FAIRFIELD — For years, downtown Fairfield has been in an apparent state of decline, as the number of vacant storefronts slowly edged out the number of occupied ones.

“That was a common theme in discussions, the open storefronts,” Bruce Harrington, chairman of the town’s Economic and Community Development Committee.

Deputy Town Manager Cynthia Tuttle said she saw many glimmers of hope in the project proposals that came and went during her 26 years of working in Fairfield, but they just never seemed to pan out.

In the 1980s, she said, the town brought a sewer line across Interstate 95 in the hope that it would spark commercial development. The sewer line, and Fairfield’s other economically attractive assets — two Interstate exits, a nice-looking spot along the Kennebec River, and an easily identifiable downtown area, brought interest, but not development.

“There were lots of talks, projects and what-ifs,” she said. “There was going to be a Comfort Inn, but it didn’t come through.”

Today, however, Fairfield’s downtown is coming alive.

Five years ago, the town developed a strategic plan that sought to attract development that would provide opportunities for local businesses and ease the tax burden on residential property owners. It was a critical development in a long, hard slog, Harrington said, but the results of that work seem finally to be materializing.

In November, construction workers finally began to convert the vacant Gerald Hotel, a majestic keystone building recently placed on the National Register of Historic Places, into housing for low-income seniors. Once the building became an official historic place, developers were able to take advantage of federal tax credits that made the $6.5 million deal, previously wishful thinking, feasible.

In addition to bringing teams of construction workers into Main Street’s eateries, the project seems to have stimulated other developments, many of which were initiated under the strategic plan, and all of which point to a brighter future for the town.

“It’s kind of like the domino effect,” Harrington said. “Once one thing falls, other things starts to fall, because people are realizing there’s some development opportunities there. The Gerald Hotel is the big domino, the first one.”

At the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, Christi Mitchell helps to guide properties, including the Gerald Hotel, onto the registry. The Gerald was approved in July 2012 by the commission’s board and finalized by the National Park Register in March.

Mitchell said about 20 properties a year are listed, and that they tend to benefit the bottom line of the communities they are in.

“In towns and cities all across the state, those properties that have taken advantage of the historic tax credits have had a very positive effect in their downtowns,” she said.

The positive effects in Fairfield, which Harrington said can be attributed to a combination of the Gerald Hotel and a variety of initiatives that line up with the strategic plan, are evident.

On the corner of Main Street and Lawrence Avenue, a supermarket that became a hardware store that became a novelty store that became a vacant eyesore is finally being torn down. So is its neighbor, the rambling former Joseph’s and Sporting Goods building. Hermon-based Ellis Commercial Management bought and demolished the buildings to clear the way for fresh development.

Ellis, which also built a Family Dollar store in town recently, said Fairfield’s traffic count of 12,000 a day and other demographics make it a good place to invest development dollars, according to company representative Heidi White.

The town made it easier for Ellis by adding some tax-increment-financing dollars to the deal. The Tax Increment Finance zone, another initiative that aligns with the strategic plan, captures tax dollars for the purpose of stimulating local development.

Since the zone was created on Main Street, its property values have increased dramatically, according to records at the town office.

In 2009, its first year, the total value of the property inside it was $8,339,200. Today, the value is $13,179,500. Tuttle said much of the growth has been the result of a townwide valuation that saw property values increase everywhere, but she said the values are expected to keep climbing as the renovated hotel and new businesses open their doors.

Another grant has subsidized storefront improvements for existing Main Street businesses. Harrington said several businesses have taken advantage of the funds, and he expects more will follow.

The town also has worked to strike a deal with the state and Pan Am Railways to renovate several railroad crossings, which have deteriorated to the point that they draw complaints from those who drive over them.

Fairfield’s downtown-centric efforts are an example of a growing trend, according to Ed Cervone, president of the Maine Development Foundation.

Cervone said communities increasingly are working to help transform their own economies rather than waiting and hoping to benefit from a regional or national boom.

“It’s not quick. It’s not easy,” he said. “It takes perseverance. Fairfield has been working at this for some time.”

Cervone said downtown areas can play a vital role in Maine’s new economy, which has shifted away from massive mills and large-scale manufacturers, and toward smaller businesses that are successfully finding niches in the global market.

To a small manufacturing business that doesn’t need a lot of space, he said, downtown locations can be ideal.

“We like to say that downtowns have good bones,” he said, referring to the roads, utilities, available services, proximity to restaurants, and quality of place that Main Streets such as Fairfield have.

In Fairfield, more projects are pending that town leaders hope will keep the momentum going.

Harrington cited preliminary plans to build a walking trail loop that would connect to an existing trail system in Benton, across the Kennebec River. The loop would include a footbridge across the Kennebec at the railroad trestle in Waterville and a trail that would extend up Fairfield’s side of the river, opening the downtown up to more foot traffic.

The town also has applied for a $500,000 Housing Assistance Program grant, which would provide money to help income-qualified residents throughout the town to renovate their homes. A recent public hearing on the application drew a dozen residents who voiced support, according to a statement released by Carlton Pinney, of Northeast Housing Services. Pinney said Friday that Fairfield’s application, one of eight being submitted from towns acros the state, was sent in last week, and the results are expected in June.

Tuttle said the program would help not only the residents, but also those who would do the work on the homes.

Fairfield-based Kennebec Valley Community College is undergoing a major expansion at a second campus, which Tuttle said could help increase traffic counts.

Harrington, who also sits on the board of directors at the college, said he expects the college’s expanded course offerings could lead to partnerships with businesses in the community. For example, he said, a new culinary class might make use of local restaurants and locally grown food.

He hopes that the development will also attract a new owner for the former Fairfield Creamery Co. building across the street from the local Cumberland Farms.

“It seems to be a decent building,” he said. “I think somebody will snatch it up.”

In two years, Harrington said, he hopes that there will be fewer vacant storefronts, a fully occupied Gerald Hotel, a new business where Joseph’s Sporting Goods once stood, and enough foot traffic to fill the businesses on Main Street.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287
[email protected]

 

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