Downtown Hallowell, including the soon-to-be-vacated Harlow Gallery at 100 Water St. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

HALLOWELL — City officials have their work cut out for them after hearing from consultants with the Maine Downtown Center, an organization that recently selected Hallowell as one of two municipalities to receive $15,000 to help with downtown revitalization.

Ben Levenger, a principal and managing member of Downtown Redevelopment Services, presented the Hallowell City Council last Tuesday with the center’s findings, which are the culmination of surveys and many meetings with residents, business owners and other stakeholders.

Possible improvements include enhancing Front Street, renovating the soon-to-be-vacated Harlow Gallery into a community space and creating an urban renewal authority.

City Manager Gary Lamb said while nothing is set in stone, the City Council is expected to continue discussing how to implement the center’s findings. He said city officials are also expected to discuss the revitalization effort, among other municipal issues, during a fall workshop scheduled for Nov. 2.

Levenger’s presentation was broken down into five sections: built environment, or the physical space of the downtown area; community character; real estate development; community capacity; and streetscape enhancements.

He said while parking is not a problem now, it could become an issue as the city continues to grow. He suggested conducting a parking warrant analysis and renovating the Perleys Lane alleyway at 161 Water St.

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“If you want people to not park on the street, you have to make it warm and inviting to go from the back parking lots onto Main Street and vice versa,” he said, adding that $500 worth of string lights and a few benches and tables for outdoor dining could dramatically transform the alley.

City Councilor Patrick Wynne said he did not expect more accessible parking would be added to the presentation, and asked where the idea originated.

Levenger said the city does not have accessible or handicap-accessible parking in the downtown area, adding the “public came out in force” to say the area is in desperate need of parking for those who have handicaps or are disabled.

Second Street Fire Station

City officials are still deciding what to do with the former Second Street Fire Station in downtown Hallowell. The building’s basement now houses the Hallowell Food Pantry, and the first floor bays, formerly used for fire trucks, are used for storage. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

For community character, Levenger’s recommended creating and implementing a downtown brand, holding more local music events, celebrating cultural heritage, offering local history tours and creating an arts and culture district.

For real estate development, Levenger strongly suggested creating an Urban Renewal Authority, or URA, which is allowed under Title 30, Chapter 203 of the state code, and could allow the city to explore long-term financing for large projects.

“It’s going to require a little more research and understanding, making sure there’s no conflicts if you have a TIF (tax increment financing) district already,” Levenger said, “but it’s just a mechanism you could look at that could be a fell swoop to enact most of these projects at one time.”

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Lamb said after Tuesday’s meeting it was unclear if creating a URA would create conflicts with the city’s TIF districts, and he planned to check with the city’s lawyer before doing so.

Levenger also suggested increasing the number of volunteers in the city.

“You have wonderful volunteers,” Levenger said. “We met many of them. However, you need to expand those volunteer pools, because we saw the same 20 people throughout our entire visit, and many of them are sitting in (City Hall) right now. So if there’s something that can be done to expand your volunteerism, that would be a great help to the community.”

Concerning streetscape enhancements, Levenger suggested improvements to Front Street, which runs parallel to Water Street in downtown Hallowell. He said such changes would provide more places for people to park, and an alternate route through the city for pedestrians and cyclists, while improving waterfront access and creating more attraction for residents and visitors.

He suggested tackling the project in two phases, with the first going from Granite City Park to where Front Street meets Wharf Street, and the second going from Wharf Street to Academy Street. Levenger said this approach would be a way to test the project’s benefits and the community’s return on investment.

Concerning Hallowell’s historic fire station, which was built in 1828 and now houses the city’s food pantry, Levenger said the city could apply for a 20% tax credit through the National Register of Historic Places and a 25% credit through Maine State Historic Rehabilitation. Each of these credits could come with stipulations, and Levenger urged officials keep this in mind if they decide to apply for the credits.

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Levenger’s final suggestion was to consider converting the Harlow Gallery at 100 Water St. into a community gathering space because it is a landmark building in the downtown corridor and soon to be vacated.

“It’s a facility that could be a fantastic community center right in the heart of downtown,” he said.

Potential uses include a coffee shop or art display near the entrance, a community gathering or artist preparation space on the lower floor and room on the upper floor for offices, conferences or professional rentals.

He suggested city officials order a feasibility study and seek out grants if they choose to revitalize the building,

Following the presentation, Councilor Maureen AuCoin said it was helpful to have someone from outside Hallowell provide perspective and assess the city’s needs.

Although the bulk of the Maine Downtown Center’s work is finished, Levenger said the City Council can contact the organization with questions as councilors begin the downtown revitalization process.

“We’ve done this in over 100 communities over the last couple of years,” Levenger said. “So if you’re going through it, we probably know somebody else who’s going through it.”

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