Community Meets Commerce

signThere seems to be a story for each business along Main Street in Norway Maine.  I had a chance to explore this downtown on a recent sunny afternoon.  My favorite story came as we stood in front of CEBE, a local non-profit referred to as “see-bee”, looking across the street towards the yellow building with the bright red metal roof.  The owner of the local bookstore, Books N Things, had recently put out the call that she needed help to pay for a new roof and the community pitched right in.  Where else but along a busy Main Street will customers and neighbors fundraise so that a business could, well, stay in business?

I was in town to participate in an evening forum, sponsored by the Town of Norway and Norway Downtown – A Main Street Organization, providing an update on the work underway to restore several historic buildings in town, and to take a moment to celebrate successes to date. Along with local volunteers, I was joined by Greg Paxton of Maine Preservation and Kirk Mohney of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission.  Lorain Francis of the Maine Downtown Center was on hand as well, and joined me in my walk about town.  Taking time to get to know the town before appearing as some expert from away always results in a better discussion and frankly, is a lot of fun.  I live in Maine because I love these towns and the people who are so dedicated to them.

GrowSmart Maine offers many resources to Maine communities, so to be able to share these, such as makingheadway.me, while offering that outsider’s view of their town can be quite energizing, for me and for them.  I shared with about 60 Norway folks that night a few insights about their Main Street and thought I’d share them here as well.

MainStreetCommerce and Economy:
I visited a hardware store, always a favorite spot to check out and in my mind, a great indicator of the true health of the Main Street – are there still places where people can buy canning supplies, screws and nails, a clothes drying rack, and as I did, a decent sized adjustable window screen?  This one had a plaque by the front door stating that a hardware store had been continuously operated on that site since 1844.  When I congratulated the Norway folks for this feat in my evening remarks, I learned that the store would be closing soon, as the owner is in his 80’s and ready to retire.  The business will be on the market, if you’re looking for a unique Main Street opportunity!
I also visited Rough and Tumble, an amazing and by comparison fairly new business in which gorgeous purses and bags are designed, made and marketed right on Main Street, along with a booming internet business.  I made a purchase or two there as well, always happy to support people committed to Maine’s rural communities.  Check them out at their shop or at http://roughandtumbledesign.com/

The way I see it, there are two highly compatible ways in which the Maine economy can grow; in the natural resource sector and in our natural appeal to those who can choose where they live and bring their job with them.  Healthcare, education, and precision manufacturing are all part of the mix as well, but farming, fishing and forestry, and the hospitality industry that relies on these sectors, create opportunities for successful place-based businesses across Maine.  These challenging businesses – and I speak from experience here – also create communities and settings that appeal to those telecommuters and entrepreneurs who love Maine. Just ask the folks at parisautobarn.com and norwaybrewing.com!

Commerce and Culture
Commerce is not the only attraction on Main Street.  Culture comes in very Maine ways; like the small building with a discrete sign over the door “The Weary Club of Norway”.  As I shared that night, I don’t know what it is, but sign me up!  Farmers’ markets, like the one located nearby, are a great example of commerce combined with culture.  If farmers can sell more products because there are cultural enticements like music and games, everybody wins!

shedCommunity
Beyond the business of selling products and services, Main Street is a place of community.  In Maine, exchanges at the crosswalk involve walker and motorist acknowledging each other, waving with all fingers extended!  That non-profit I mentioned, CEBE, is the Center for an Ecology-Based Economy.  Scott and I stood and chatted for quite a while, and he told me about the bike-sharing program that is a huge success, and the Edible Main Street planters where the community collectively shares in the tending to and harvest of food plants along Main Street.  He directed me to the Community Garden nearby, named in honor of local community activitist Alan Day, where food is grown with the help of solar-powered watering system and electrical outlets to aid in construction projects and regularly scheduled social and educational events.  CEBE also worked with the town to install and power an electric charging station for those who might need to recharge their cars, offering them a chance to do so while they explore all that downtown Norway has to offer.
And how does community connect with commerce, and with these historic buildings I was invited to speak about?  Even if you don’t shop at the specialty shops in town… even if you don’t work there… the magic is in creating a mix of experiences, something to suit all who choose to live in or visit a town.  And it may be that, even if you don’t quite understand the interest in beautiful purses, or lovely yarns from the shop next door, these shops will employ your neighbor, your grandson, and perhaps even buy products from the farmers working to make a living next door.

echinaceaConnections
Beyond the personal connections, work done to restore Main Streets support the outlying natural areas as well.  Farms prosper when there is an interested customer base nearby, and those who work on farms and within the land conservation movement aren’t competing with downtown rehabilitation, they are simply working on the other side of the same coin.  Main Streets that draw commercial and residential owners and tenants pull that development pressure away from rural lands while creating places for these customers to connect with farmers.  In addition, there is no better energy conservation than the reuse of an existing building. “Embedded energy” is a phrase used to describe the effort, the energy, that has already been invested in the bricks, the wood, the construction of a building.  Better than green-certified new construction, a thoughtfully designed and restored building is an excellent environmental investment as well.

Those Beautiful Old Buildings
Community members spoke of the good work done on the Opera House, the work needed in the church, and plans to rescue and restore other landmarks. These buildings are said to affirm Maine’s authenticity.  In other places, towns that long ago tore down their unique downtowns are attempting to reproduce the feel of this kind of Main Street.  But these are not movie sets, they are not creations… they are the backdrop for our lives.  These buildings matter because of how we relate to them; and how they lead us to connect with one another.  Main Street conversations like those I had on this day don’t happen in a strip mall or a big box store.  When we share experiences in and around these buildings, they become a part of us.  The forum, hosted by Norway Downtown, was held at the First Universalist Church of Norway, itself an historic building in need of some TLC and investment.  I hadn’t been in that church before, but recognized the comfort that comes from being within such walls; where baptisms, weddings and funerals are held.  We care for these buildings, as the quote on the church poster said, because it is our obligation to the past and to the future.  I would say it is our honor as well.
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