Drivers make their morning commute on Presque Isle’s Main Street as they pass city landmarks, including the Northeastland Hotel. Credit: David Marino Jr. / The Star-Herald

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Presque Isle City Council has approved the city’s 2020 Downtown Redevelopment Plan, a 30-year plan to transform the city’s downtown into a hub for commerce and housing.

The plan proposes 18 projects for downtown costing a total of $5.3 million, including initiatives that would improve sidewalks and intersections, establish a development grant program for storefronts and financially assist landlords with renovating their properties. While the city council has approved the plan, it must authorize each project’s funding before development begins.

City officials want to turn the Star City’s downtown into a commercial and cultural center for both Presque Isle and wider Aroostook County — as well as nearby Canadian markets — by encouraging investment through business-friendly policies, making the area more aesthetically pleasing and promoting historical and cultural landmarks in the city.

Presque Isle’s Main Street, including city landmarks such as Gary’s Furniture, the Mai Tai restaurant and the Northeastland Hotel. Credit: David Marino Jr. / The Star-Herald

The plan focuses on significant areas downtown, including Main Street, Chapman Road, Maysville Street and North Street, among others.

The plan has been hammered out over months by the Presque Isle Downtown Revitalization Committee in collaboration with the city’s planning board and city council. Though it was a collaborative effort, Economic and Community Development Director Galen Weibley was the chief planner.

Presque Isle Economic and Community Development Director Galen Weibley holds the downtown revitalization plan in his office in Presque Isle City Hall. Credit: David Marino Jr. / The Star-Herald

“Our goal is to revamp our revitalization efforts for Presque Isle’s downtown,” Weibley said. “We’re trying it in a comprehensive fashion that really transforms our community into the 21st century.”

The plan also highlights the potential for future development of Presque Isle’s recreation sector — an aspect of the city Weibley has highlighted in the past — including building a bridge over the Presque Isle Stream to give ATV and snowmobile riders access to the downtown area and expanding pet-friendly programming with the creation of a dog center — a location where residents can let their dogs roam unleashed.

The plan acknowledges that the city’s economic life has not always been smooth sailing: it said that the downtown’s longtime status as a center for “social, civic and cultural activity” was first challenged in the 1980s by degraded properties and outward migration.

Weibley hopes the new projects can help reverse that trend, as well as make Presque Isle a desirable place to move to. He said the proposals in the plan to enhance housing in the downtown area were being done in conjunction with work by Presque Isle’s rental housing working group, which is made up of tenant advocates, city officials and landlords, among other residents.

When Presque Isle was incorporated as a city in 1940, the census counted about 8,000 residents. That number grew to nearly 13,000 in the 1960 census — assisted by the Presque Isle Air Force Base and a vibrant agriculture industry — but has declined in every decade since. Today’s population is estimated at about 9,000.

The plan is to pay for the new developments by establishing a 923.9-acre tax increment financing district in the downtown. Municipalities use tax increment financing districts to stimulate growth in a particular area.

As a city redevelops a tax increment financing district, property values tend to increase — the property tax revenue cities see from this new valuation is put into a separate account that it can use to develop the area further.

While these districts have been utilized in the past in Presque Isle, nothing of this sort has ever been tried — Weibley said he believed it to be the largest such district ever in Aroostook County. The district needs to be approved by the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development before it takes effect next year, though Weibley expects few issues.

Though he said work on the plan was not always easy — with several complex economic factors in play with any given project — Weibley said he is excited to see the new spending help downtown.

“I’m very excited about it because it’s a very ambitious goal, a 30-year plan,” Weibley said. “The city’s never gone this far [into the future] with a plan.”