WINTHROP — The story of downtown Winthrop is a common one. For decades, it thrived, thanks to the woolen blankets and other textiles that were produced right on Main Street by a company that once boasted annual sales of around $45 million.

But the Carleton Woolen Mill closed in 2002, and over time, competition from big-box stores and online retailers has proved too great for many other local businesses to continue. Now, like other communities across the country, residents bemoan the sleepiness of downtown Winthrop and wonder how its vibrancy can be restored.

This summer, a group of businesspeople, officials and residents are trying to answer that question and jump-start a new revitalization effort.

While they acknowledge that Winthrop probably never will return to the times when you could meet all your shopping needs on Main Street, they also think that a focused investment of time, effort and money could start to attract new businesses and help existing ones to expand.

“We already have a lot of assets,” said Sarah Fuller, chairwoman of the Town Council and a director of the Winthrop Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce, in late June. “We have an actual Main Street; excellent proximity to highways, rails; extraordinary schools; good town services; lakes, hiking, natural stuff surrounding us. … I know we look around see Gardiner and Waterville and Hallowell, and we see them kind of booming and think, ‘Well, why not us?'”

Fuller was speaking at the first of two meetings that are being held to discuss downtown development. The first was held on June 26 at the Barn at Silver Oaks Estate, a wedding venue on Route 133. The roughly 40 attendees brainstormed about the town’s strengths and challenges, then suggested ideas for moving forward.

Among the suggestions were hiring a full-time economic development official, establishing a business incubator, pushing for the development of affordable housing, attracting a restaurant or store that could draw visitors, and launching a branding effort for Winthrop.

The Wagging Tails Grooming Salon is seen Friday on Main Street in Winthrop. Staff photo by Joe Phelan

Organizers at the Winthrop Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce have narrowed the list of suggestions, and at the second meeting this Tuesday, attendees will vote on which ones seem prudent. That second meeting starts at 5:30 p.m. and also will be held at the Barn at Silver Oaks Estate.

It’s natural to be skeptical of any community visioning exercise, particularly given the challenge of acting on those suggestions, said Kim Vandermeulen, president of the Winthrop Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce.

But the organizers of this effort are accomplished businesspeople who have taken risks in the past and are committed to seeing it through, said Vandermeulen, who is the CEO of Alternative Manufacturing Inc., an electronics business with a Winthrop production facility that employs about 85 people.

“Lots of people can say, ‘That’s a lot of talk, but making something happen is another story,'” Vandermeulen said. “We’re not talking about having to launch a rocket to Mars here. We’re talking about small steps that are quite doable.”

Winthrop already has seen a few glimmers of downtown development in recent years.

The area around Main Street now includes a mix of small businesses, including a salon, a roast beef restaurant, law and accounting offices, health care facilities, and a variety of secondhand stores. Other restaurants, businesses and manufacturers are scattered around town, along with popular resources such as the town beach and Charles M. Bailey Public Library.

Some new businesses also have opened recently, such as a pet grooming business on Main Street and the Barn at Silver Oaks Estate.

Wagging Tails Grooming Salon was started last fall by Melanie and Will Hubble, a Greene couple who moved back to Maine recently after running a similar business in Florida. The Hubbles work with dogs and cats and try to schedule six to 10 grooming appointments per day, with mixed success.

“It’s up and down,” said Will Hubble on a recent morning, as he and Melanie gave haircuts to a pair of goldendoodles.

The Barn at Silver Oaks Estate, which touches the western shore of Maranacook Lake, has taken off since opening two years ago. It’s booked for the next 2.5 years and has drawn visitors from across the country, according to Gene Carbona, a co-owner of the wedding venue.

However, at the June 26 meeting, attendees expressed frustration with the lack of some amenities around Main Street, such as a nice restaurant, a cafe or an ice cream parlor. There have been several recent attempts to start coffee and ice cream shops along Main Street, none of which has lasted long or taken off. There are now about nine vacant downtown properties, according to Fuller.

People also complained about the eyesores that can result from vacancies. Numerous people mentioned the property owned by FairPoint Communications that often appears empty, as well as the site of the post office that burned down in early 2017. The U.S. Postal Service has said it plans to rebuild by this fall, but it took nine months to tear down the charred remains of the old one.

Last summer, that scene apparently was enough to dissuade one woman who was planning a wedding and visiting Winthrop from taking a tour of the Barn at Silver Oaks Estate.

“The burned-out post office and the empty buildings were incredibly depressing to her,” Carbona told attendees at the June 26 meeting. “It was embarrassing for me.”

At that meeting, people offered mixed suggestions for how the town should proceed. Many agreed that Winthrop could use a business, such as a nice restaurant, to serve as a consistent draw. At least some of the success in more bustling central Maine communities, such as Hallowell and Waterville, has come from their bars and eateries.

But creating the atmosphere for such an enterprise could require time, effort and money, organizers have said. Also, the fact that a group is meeting to discuss downtown development is no guarantee of success.

Laurie Tompkins, who owns one of the secondhand stores in downtown Winthrop, Becky’s Second Time Around, attended the meeting last month and told attendees that she was part of a similar effort several years ago. However, at that time, the town was unwilling to make some investments that would have helped, such as hiring development consultants, Tompkins said.

Several people agreed that the town should invest in an economic development coordinator. While the Winthrop Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce employs a part-time time executive director, Barbara Walsh, attendees of the June 26 meeting said that connecting current or potential business owners with grants and other incentives is a job of its own.

Melanie Hubble and Will Hubble work together on grooming a dog Friday at Wagging Tails Grooming Salon on Main Street in Winthrop. Staff photo by Joe Phelan

“Gardiner did it a long time ago, and look what a difference it’s made,” said Rita Moran, a member of the Town Council who used to run a bookstore in downtown Winthrop.

In Gardiner, revitalization efforts have led to the creation of a nonprofit organization called Gardiner Main Street that employs two people who are focused on marketing and development and also relies on volunteers. The organization receives a mix of funding, including some from the city, and has focused on everything from rehabilitating buildings to promoting events.

After the meeting this week, Fuller said that the downtown development committee of the Winthrop Lakes Region Chamber will be considering the recommendations and ways to pursue them.

After a past round of development work in Winthrop — the one that Tompkins mentioned — Fuller said that town was able to apply successfully for grant funding to make sidewalk improvements. This time around, the group will be looking at the approaches other communities have taken. If the priority is hiring an economic development coordinator, for example, they’ll research what that could cost, what results it could yield, and whether it would be done better through the Chamber of Commerce or the town.

The town’s finances are tight right now, in large part because of a $1.5 million deficit that was discovered in the school side of the budget two years ago. Because of that situation, some members of the Town Council have been reluctant to raise local spending and property taxes recently.

However, Fuller pointed out that any successful economic development eventually will result in more tax income for the town.

“It’s difficult to make investments in new things when you’re struggling to pay for immediate needs,” she said, “but I’m optimistic that we’re close to rounding that corner.”

Charles Eichacker — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @ceichacker

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