AUGUSTA — For most people, perception is reality.

The perception that businesses are exiting downtown Augusta is a hard one to overcome.

Some high profile exits within the last year, coupled with the notice that Bar Harbor Bank and Trust is planning to close its Water Street branch by the end of May, may reinforce that notion.

But Michael Hall, who has just completed his first three months as executive director of the Augusta Downtown Alliance, said he can see past that perception, and he’s working to help others see it, too.

“You can change perceptions for people who are open-minded,” Hall said. Those are the people that will consider a downtown Augusta address for a home or a business, and those are the people he wants to talk to.

Hall was hired to run the alliance, a mostly volunteer group of business owners, developers and stakeholders with a common interest in developing downtown Augusta, after the abrupt exit of its former director, Steve Pecukonis.

Since he started, Hall has revamped the organization’s website, www.augustadowntownalliance,org, which now includes a roster of available properties; organized Raw Space — an art walk — on May 13 and a masquerade ball; collaborated with the Greater Kennebec Chamber of Commerce on a 5-kilometer Color Dash on June 4; and has reached out to retailers and other businesses to snag interest in downtown properties.

In his mind, what separates plans from action is ambition. There are, he said, plenty of plans, both good and bad, that are sitting on shelves, unfulfilled.

“With ambition, you can see under the layers into the future,” he said. “Having a vision is great, but you can get lost in the weeds.”

One of the first plans he encountered in Augusta was a proposal for a parking garage on Front Street. The plan, circa 1987, was fairly complete, but the project was never completed.

“I have an idea for what I want Water Street to look like,” he said, “and it may not be what others have considered.”

The eclectic nature of downtown architecture, which embraces a variety of styles and time periods, offers a lot of potential, the self-confessed architecture nerd said.

“There’s a good start being created,” Augusta Mayor David Rollins said. “There are a lot of reasons to be excited. Since he has come to town, he has put out a full effort in bringing awareness of the situation and opportunity downtown.”

From Rollins’ perspective, the idea that downtown Augusta is struggling overshadows the progress that’s being made elsewhere in the city.

“The perception is that not much is going on,” Rollins said, “but more is happening here than elsewhere in Kennebec County.”

And early indications are that interest is being expressed in downtown.

Rollins said the potential exists for 400 residential units downtown, and that creates a market of people who will want cafes and a produce market and other shops to meet their needs.

“It takes a long-term plan. It’s much more than dressing up the retail space and hoping people come,” he said.

Augusta city officials are taking a long view by considering establishing a historic district that encompasses downtown Augusta. With that designation, Rollins said, property owners might have access to grants.

Although discussions are in early stages, another financial carrot, in the form of economic incentives, might be possible for new businesses with an interest in downtown Augusta.

Tobias Parkhust, chairman of the alliance, confirmed those discussions are taking place with the city’s economic development staff.

“It’s going to be a great thing, and it will be our challenge to find a way to fund it,” he said. “We’ve written a grant, but we don’t know if we’ve got it or not. We would like to bring some money to the table before asking the city for anything.”

Parkhurst said he won’t be surprised if a couple of empty downtown storefronts are filled by the end of the year.

“Michael’s doing a great job reaching out to businesses,” Parkhurst said. “We haven’t recruited anyone yet, but we have had one and two and three meetings with folks. These are game-changer businesses that would be very exciting for the city.”

Although he was not initially sold on putting on a slate of events, Parkhurst said he’s changed his mind.

“When I took over as chairman, I wanted to get away from that because we are more of an economic development agency,” he said. “So you get 85 people downtown for a day. Then what? But (Hall) has struck a good balance; he’s doubled the number of events and the success.”

One of those events, the Color Dash, marks the first collaboration with another agency, the Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce.

“The chamber really appreciates the work the ADA has done and is doing to bring back downtown Augusta,” Ross Cunningham, chamber president and CEO, said. “Michael is forthright and optimistic and full of energy.”

Although both the alliance and the chamber are membership organizations, Cunningham said there’s no conflict because membership in the different organizations offers different returns.

“The ADA is focused on the issues of downtown Augusta, and the chamber has a more regional approach and offers exposure outside downtown Augusta in more than 20 towns we represent in the region,” he said.

The goal of collaborating on the Color Dash, he said, is attracting a young, enthusiastic and athletic demographic to Augusta’s downtown to see what it has to offer.

“One of the things that will benefit Augusta specifically is a renewed focus on the river and getting businesses back in some of the properties that have a view of the river, and maybe having boat access,” Cunningham said. “Embracing the river from an economic standpoint is going to go a long way.”

Rollins said he doesn’t see any particular roadblocks to plans for the Water Street area. Augusta, he said, weathered the economic downtown from 2008 to 2012 using the tools it had at hand.

“For me, critical mass will be gained when the Colonial Theater project is much more in the front of everyone’s mind and restoration is underway and it reaches completion,” he said. “That will be a catalyst to spur development on Water Street.”

That will dovetail with Hall’s plans to promote more nightlife in downtown Augusta.

“I want people to know change is coming,” Hall said. “I would not consider myself a success if I didn’t have one thing to announce by the end of the year.”

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

[email protected]

Twitter: @JLowellKJ