Two women walk through a quiet downtown Freeport last week. Hannah LaClaire / The Times Record

FREEPORT — Driving through Freeport Village, past the L.L. Bean flagship store, the outlets, coffee shops, eateries and inns, the town’s usually bustling Main Street feels strangely vacant. 

A few holdouts remain open, but with Gov. Janet Mill’s stay-at-home order, most shops in the downtown’s busy retail scene are shuttered. 

As the coronavirus pandemic spreads, and the resulting physical distancing and quarantine measures prevent people from going about their usual routines, stores and industries across the nation are taking a hit. Business owners everywhere are concerned about the long term effects of closing their doors. 

But in Freeport, a town known for its shopping, there is potential for a disproportionate impact. 

The biggest concerns lie in the unknowns: When will this be over? Can stores reopen for tourist season? When will travel restrictions be lifted?

“All the businesses I’ve talked to are struggling, (but) it’s even harder predicting how long this is going to last,” said Keith McBride, economic development director. 

According to projections from the Economic Policy Institute, Maine may lose more than 87,000 jobs by the end of June.

A deserted Freeport Village Station this week as most retailers have shut their doors amid the coronavirus pandemic and the governor’s stay-at-home order. Hannah LaClaire / The Times Record

The situation changes constantly. Just a few days into Mills’ order, it is still too early to know how things will look by Memorial Day, when tourism traffic generally starts to pick up, let alone a year from now. There is no data to fall back on, as everything is still unfolding, McBride said, and it is the coming months that will determine “how much of a financial burden we have to bear.” 

The season starts to ramp up in May and is in full tilt through July and August and starts to subside in mid-September. The current stay-at-home order is in effect until at least April 30. 

“We’re knocking on the door of that time period,” McBride said. “I’m hopeful that by the time we get (there) travel restrictions are going to be lifted (but) I can’t say for sure.”

L.L. Bean’s flagship location has anchored Freeport’s retail scene for decades. Famously open at all hours, the store has kept the lights on through snowstorms, holidays and whatever else is thrown at it; until the coronavirus. 

March 16 marked just the fifth time the flagship store closed, and the first time it closed for more than 24 hours. Shortly after, locks were installed on the doors that were always open. 

According to the Sun Journal, all year-round employees will still be paid and receive benefits, and the company will continue to take online and telephone orders while implementing social distancing measures for warehouse workers. The flagship location alone employs about 330 people. 

More than two weeks later, it is still unknown when they might reopen. 

“We, like everybody else, are pretty focused on running the business and taking care of employees,” spokesperson Carolyn Beem said in an interview. “Everybody’s trying to figure this out at the same time, but there’s a lot of anxiety. It’s just tough.” 

L.L. Bean has been packaging food for Good Shepherd Food Bank and sewing masks for healthcare workers out of material usually used in dog bed liners

“We’re trying to make our own contribution to ending the pandemic,” she said. “We’re all in this together, and of course we want to see Freeport open and operating and have the doors open. We want the other businesses to be successful.” 

It’s still too early to know how the business may be impacted long term, Beem said, but with the doors closed and the more people staying home, business is down for the outdoor brand. 

“We’re hunkered down, we’re in it with the rest of the country, just trying to get around the corner,” she said. “It’s a tough time for all retailers and all people in this country and around the globe.”

Colette Wold, owner of Bella Boutique, a small women’s boutique in downtown Freeport, watched as one by one, other retailers followed L.L. Bean’s lead and closed up shop. 

“While Beans was still open there were still hundreds of people going to work and walking through town,” she said, but now it’s a different story. 

“We’re waiting to see what happens,” she said. 

Bella Boutique opened about two years ago and until recently, was looking forward to a busy tourist reason. 

“Early spring is always quite a slow time,” she said. “I had to fill the store with inventory in preparation for the busy season, and I’ve done that, and now to have to close for two months, maybe longer and lay off my employees… I’m not sure if I’ll make it.” 

As a small local shop, Bella Boutique does not have the same internet presence that a lot of the retailers downtown, like J. Crew or Orvis might have, and Wold is used to delivering a certain level of service that she said she cannot replicate online. 

“It’s hard to know what’s going to happen next, how comfortable people will feel going out when this is lifted,” she said. 

Her two part-time employees have other, full-time jobs, and her two on-call employees are both retired, so Wold feels fortunate that closing did not impact employees too heavily. 

Visit Freeport has been instrumental in helping the local businesses navigate this new challenge, providing information on payroll assistance, Small Business Administration Loans and marketing tips and other resources. 

Moving forward, Wold’s focus will be on how to regain her customer base, or, if that fails, out to start the liquidation process. She hopes it doesn’t come to that. 

“I’ve lived in Freeport for 30 years. It’s a wonderful place to live and do business,” she said. “I hope the town will survive this and grow in the future.”

For the past few years, Freeport has been taking strides to diversify the local economy.

As the world moves away from brick and mortar retailers and toward a blend of online shopping and mom and pop local shops, Freeport is adapting, both by leaning into the “shop local” scene and rebranding as an “experiential” arts and culture destination. 

“Freeport is already a destination,” McBride told the Portland Press Herald in August. “It’s how we continue to enhance that – that’s the most important thing for us right now.”

Last year, Freeport and the Freeport Arts and Culture Alliance established a 2018 cultural plan to help develop “experienced-based opportunities to remain resilient” in the face of continuing change.

Events like the annual Fall Festival, the Sparkle Celebration and Flavors of Freeport draw thousands in the so-called shoulder seasons, Kelly Edwards, executive director of Visit Freeport told The Times Record this fall. 

The arts and cultural alliance is working to renovate and convert the Main Street First Parish Church into Meetinghouse Arts, a 200-seat performance hall, gallery and creative space.

Other important projects also are in limbo. 

Town officials are close to final meetings to discuss and potentially approve a tax increment financing package with L.L. Bean to benefit Concord Gully Brook, McBride said, and plans for Beacon Residences, a 144 apartment development on Desert Road are almost ready for approval. 

Like everything else, these efforts are temporarily on hold while the country works to quell the surge of coronavirus cases. 

“There’s a lot of stuff I feel like we put a lot of effort into and it would be a real shame to lose it,” he said.

In the meantime, councilors are considering pushing back the tow’s property tax deadline and McBride, as the chair of the Greater Portland Council of Governments Revolving Loan Committee, is trying to roll out a proposal for helpful and quick financing options to supplement some of the larger, national business relief programs. 

“This happened at such an awful time,” he said. Though admittedly, “it was never going to be a good time for an international pandemic.”

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