Last month GrowSmart Maine hosted a “Commercial Strip Convening”, bringing together representatives from 10 communities, Sustain Southern Maine participants, and several others who are working on commercial strip projects in Maine. A shared interest in “re-envisioning” Maine’s commercial strips was the catalyst for the convening.
As you may recall, GrowSmart’s project “Re-Envisioning the Highway Strip” (working title) has been looking at ways to re-think Maine’s commercial strips, focusing on the commercial strip center. Over the past 2 years project consultants Evan Richert and Lynne Seeley have been talking with communities about their commercial strips, and discovered many local efforts underway to re-think and re-design commercial corridors. With the GrowSmart project nearing completion, it seemed like an opportunity to “convene” communities to:
- Connect our common work
- Present GrowSmart Maine’s (GSM) commercial strip work
- Give everyone a chance to share information about their commercial strip work (i.e. process, concepts) for the benefit of all
- Brainstorm “lessons learned” about process and concepts
- Provide “next steps” guidance for GSM work on commercial strips
The day’s conversation proved enlightening and encouraging. A lot of thoughtful, creative effort is underway to transform commercial strips from “anywhere USA” stop-and-go experiences, to landscaped, pedestrian friendly, multi-activity designed “places”.
As the day’s discussion revealed, this transformation will take time and is not without its challenges. Financial costs, political will, economic considerations, community consensus, parking, business needs/interests, long-term process and implementation – these are some of the challenges the group discussed.
How to address these challenges? The group shared a number of “lessons learned” from current commercial strip projects. Some of the “lessons” include: engage property owners from the beginning and often; involve local officials early and often; use visualization techniques to show new ideas AND current zoning; build support with as many constituencies as possible – develop a shared vision; consider incremental steps; “better” is OK, instead of best; explain financial impact early on; create public places first; public safety officials participation is important; and be bold and be patient.
The day concluded with some thoughts about “next steps” for GrowSmart and its planning work. There was general consensus that bringing community representatives together to discuss planning issues and to share common work was a positive outcome of the day. As one participant said “Hearing what other towns have done successfully has been very helpful.”