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ROCKLAND, Maine ― Rockland was the first city in the state to propose closing its main street to vehicular traffic for the summer to allow businesses and restaurants to sprawl onto the sidewalks to serve more customers under COVID-19 safety guidelines.
While the proposal was progressive, it’s still uncertain as other Maine cities have forged ahead with similar plans.
Now, Rockland officials are considering another plan to provide unsecured $5,000 loans to downtown businesses in an effort to throw them a lifeline during the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. While the intentions are good, some city councilors worry the proposal would prioritize downtown, while businesses outside the city’s center struggle.
“I’m concerned about the optics of providing a rotating loan fund that only benefits such a specific geographic location,” city councilor Ben Dorr, a co-owner of a downtown business, said. “I think it’s appropriate to acknowledge everybody’s business challenges, not just the people who are on Main Street because we are not the only people having a hard time.”
City councilors are delaying until next week a vote to inject $100,000 worth of loans into downtown businesses. The funding for the downtown loan program would come from the Downtown Tax Increment Financing District Fund, which is funded by tax dollars paid by downtown property owners.
While councilors voiced support of helping struggling downtown businesses — perhaps through a loan program — they worry that using city funds this way might not have the widest impact.
Instead of giving the money directly to businesses, some councilors proposed using it to spruce up the downtown area, especially if the city is going to turn Main Street into a pedestrian walking plaza this summer.
“What are we doing with this TIF money that is good for everybody that lives in town? If we’re improving the streetscape, the sidewalks so people can walk downtown, that’s a perfectly acceptable thing. This is targeted at a small group of people who have businesses downtown. We want to find ways to help them and the question is maybe this money is better spent fixing up the streets,” city councilor Ed Glaser said.
City councilors approved closing Main Street for the month of June earlier this month. But some downtown business owners raised concerns about the impact a full closure would have on deliveries and curbside pickup.
While cities like Portland have many streets in their downtown area, making it theoretically easier to close some while leaving others open to vehicle traffic, Rockland’s Main Street — which also doubles as U.S. Route 1 — is the primary thoroughfare for travel through downtown.
The Rockland plan now hinges on a task force made up of city officials and downtown business owners. City manager Tom Luttrell said the task force is leaning toward moving forward with the closure in a scaled back manner, with a trial closure on the weekend of June 19 and 20, and intentions to expand the closure into the months of July and August.
City councilor Nate Davis said he wants the plan to be an anti-gentrification tool, making the downtown open to people from all walks of life, not just those who can afford to spend money there. He said he is worried that using the TIF money to bolster downtown businesses might not benefit the most people in Rockland.
“There is a perception now — and to some extent I think a justified perception — that downtown is somehow elite or exclusive,” Davis said. “I’m thinking about how we can use the TIF money for improvements to the physical structures of downtown and to transit improvements in downtown.”
Luttrell pointed out that if downtown businesses close because they can’t afford to stay open, it could have a blighted effect on Main Street, which in turn hurts the economy of the entire city. Additionally, money from this fund can only be spent in the downtown district so the city’s “hands are tied” when it comes to getting loans to businesses outside of the district, according to community development director Julie Hashem.
“This is to keep the storefronts in your downtown area open, which will attract people to come down here,” Lutrell said. ” “Our biggest fear is that we have empty storefronts now, we don’t want more, which makes our downtown look bleak and nobody wants to come.”
There is the potential to use money from the city’s undesignated fund account to start a broader loan program, Luttrell and Hashem said. However, it was unclear Wednesday night if that’s how the city will proceed.
It’s also unclear when the Main Street closure task force would be making its final recommendations. The task force is expected to meet Thursday night.
Watch: Janet Mills outlines her plan to reopen