GARDINER — It’s not uncommon for businesses to move in and out of downtown storefronts from one year to the next, or even after a few months. Gardiner has seen a shuffling of more than a dozen businesses in the last year, but the head of downtown development says even though the number of filled or empty storefronts is largely the same as it was a year ago, the quality of the businesses has improved dramatically.

With the help of a financial incentive program to attract businesses downtown, two popular Maine businesses opened new locations in Gardiner last year, and a third unnamed business expecting to open this summer has been approved for a financing package, said Patrick Wright, executive director of Gardiner Main Street.

“Too often, people get caught up in what businesses open, what businesses close,” Wright said in a recent interview at his downtown office. A business opening or closing isn’t alone an indication of whether a downtown is healthy or in decline, he said.

Near the start of last year, Gardiner had recently lost a few downtown businesses, including one, Water Street Cafe, that occupied prominent storefront space on the corner of Water and Bridge streets. Now in its place is Frosty’s Donuts, one of the businesses lured by the incentives program. The doughnut chain with locations in Brunswick, Bath and Freeport received around $25,000 in a forgivable loan and grant to open last June in Gardiner.

Then at the start of this year, Emery’s Meat & Produce closed its Augusta and Monmouth stores to open on Bridge Street in Gardiner with the help of $40,000 from the program.

Although the downtown added a few businesses within the last year, including a candy store, a store selling hot sauces and specialty food items, and a store selling Mason jar-related crafts, there was an exodus of businesses too, including an arts-and-crafts gallery that opened and closed within the year and Alex Parker’s Steakhouse, which opened in 2012 after extensive renovations to the Water Street space.

When the restaurant opened and rehabilitated an eyesore of a public walkway between Water Street and a parking lot, city officials were bullish on the potential of the restaurant to help transform the downtown. One member of the city committee that approved a $40,000 loan to the business said she hoped the restaurant would be “the catalyst to get other people to pay attention to Gardiner.”

Less than two years later, the restaurant closed its doors permanently without warning, still owing the city more than $35,000 of the loan.

But the location at 259 Water St. might not stay empty for too long.

Two brothers from Gardiner who plan to open a general store and private club in the former KeyBank building later this year, Pete and K.C. Johnson, recently purchased the downtown building where Alex Parker’s was located. K.C. Johnson, who lives in Pittson and coaches lacrosse at Gardiner Area High School, didn’t respond to phone calls seeking comment. His brother, Pete Johnson, owns Tatuaje Cigars in Los Angeles, California.

The pair plans to sell general store goods, wine, antiques and cigars at the store in the building last occupied by KeyBank a year ago. On the second floor, there will be a private social club, according to the plan approved by the city’s Planning Board in February.

The brothers bought the Alex Parker’s building in March, along with some of the equipment left by the restaurant. Wright said they plan to connect with a restaurateur to open another eatery there.

A benefit to the downtown in the last year has been the increase in the number and quality of shows at Johnson Hall Performing Arts Center, Wright said. However, that has also highlighted another downtown need: more restaurants that stay open late for shows, he said.

The third business approved for a financial incentives package, a business Wright declined to name, will open some type of retail store in early summer to midsummer in the Water Street storefront most recently occupied by Founding Farmers Community Market, which closed last weekend, he said. The businessman opening the store was expected to close on buying the building Friday, Wright said.

Along with the investments by the Johnsons and the businesses landed with the financial incentives program, another asset that probably will boost interest in downtown is the Gardiner Food Co-op & Cafe, Wright said.

The co-op, which will sell a full range of grocery items, soups, sandwiches, espresso drinks and more, is expected to open at 269 Water St. by the end of this month.

Eric Dyer, general manager of the co-op, said the store will have a soft opening near the end of May and a grand opening in June.

As a cooperative, the business is owned and governed by its members. At an Earth Day event last month, the co-op finally reached its goal of 360 members, Dyer said.

“I think about downtown Gardiner, and it seems as though it’s developing in this really cool way,” he said, “because we have such a diversity in businesses for a diverse group of people.”

Paul Koenig — 621-5663

[email protected]

Twitter: @pdkoenig


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