Is more retail really the answer? Growing smart in Hallowell

stevens commons

Check out the story: Hallowell Planning Board to host discussion about Stevens Commons project

Below are remarks made at the Nov 16 Hallowell Planning Board Presentation by GrowSmart Maine’s Executive Director Nancy Smith:

GrowSmart Maine is a statewide non-profit whose mission is to create lasting prosperity without sacrificing the quality of life that defines Maine.  We work with communities to manage their future and lean into change. One thing we do not do is come into a community and tell them what they ought to do.

This is your community, you know it best, you want it to thrive.  City Manager Nate Rudy asked if I’d come speak, offering a statewide perspective.

Three things I can do tonight:

  • Help define the issue you are facing
  • Show examples from other places for you to consider what pieces might fit here
  • Offer questions to ask as you consider the proposal for Stevens School:


1.     Define the issue:

  • There is a unique opportunity to bring back to life an abandoned school campus in the heart of town.
  • The challenge is ensuring public/private investments there fit with the needs of the rest of community

Why this matters: Four values of redevelopment

  • Cultural value: rehabilitation of historic and cultural piece of this city rather than seeing it fall into ruin.
  • Fiscal benefit:  Get this property on the tax rolls. Value of infill mixed use is that it results in the highest property taxes paid per acre and are most often located in places where new projects can tie in with existing infrastructure such as sewer and water, making best use of existing municipal investments.

Joe Minicozzi offers a quick summary of this concept in this YouTube video

  • Environmental value:  Economic and cultural growth without loss of open space, activity closer to town means fewer car miles to get between home, work, errands and fun; and there is no greener building than one that already exists, with carbon already sequestered in the materials.
  • Economic benefit: diverse, walkable, safe and interesting downtowns are desired by millennials and baby boomers

Additional activity within the downtown adds value to what’s there already, when done well.  Call it synergy or agglomeration –  the sum of  businesses adds up to more because they generate business for each other.

  To quote Jane Lafleur, “ Yes, three coffee shops do better than one coffee shop.”

2.     Learn from other communities:  lessons learned and potential next steps can come from experiences in other communities.  Visit them, talk to your peers there.

  • Biddeford: Pepperrell Mill adds mixed use to the downtown, North Dam Mill as well.
  • In Waterville, The Hathaway Creative Center has first-floor retail, though it is struggling, in part because it is disconnected from downtown due to a challenging intersection for pedestrians.
  • Camden:  Old Knox Mill – successful redevelopment in a tourist retail downtown.  The Knox Mill in Camden was converted to housing, with some street level retail. The Camden ordinances required street level retail (not office) in order to promote a healthy Main Street and pedestrian life on the street.
  • Lewiston:   Bates #2 has hospitality/brewery, Lisbon Street, Bates 5 huge potential
  • Gardiner: CoLab space of Gardiner Main Street is taking hold in five building in Water Street, with plans for mixed use redevelopment in the next five years; including hospitality and retail.
  • Kittery: Foreside: Replacing a water district facility with streetside retail at the front and a combination of rental apartments and condos at the back of the lot. Adding needed housing adjacent to York Hospital, a butcher, market and other food related retail, walkable to Kittery downtown.
  • Westbrook: Pride’s Corner: Adding retail that will cater to surrounding neighborhoods, not just pass-through traffic on Rte. 302, with more housing adjacent to help support the new retail.
  • Dana Warp Mill, Westbrook
  • Fort Andross, Brunswick: mixed use redevelopment adjacent to a thriving downtown, though separated by challenging intersections.

3.     Questions to ask as you consider how to proceed.

  • What information do you currently have to inform your thinking?
  • What is the state of retail/hospitality in Hallowell currently?
  • What retail/hospitality is lacking in Hallowell?  Is there an oversupply of others?
  • Who is your Customer base:  residents, workers, vs. tourism, destination:  why does it matter?
  • Who’s the competition and how do you compare?

Lewiston to midcoast, Waterville to Brunswick/Portland.  Though Hallowell is a gem, it is competing with other engaging downtowns with their own charm.

  • What’s the latest new thing in Hallowell? How does that compare to other communities?
  • Looking at the Stevens School redevelopment opportunity, are there others in Hallowell or is this the last opportunity for infill retail in town?  Flood plain issues limit Water Street reuse and expansion.
  • How can the mix  of proposed uses fit within, support and enhance the existing community?


Cities are in redevelopment across the state, must always be looking ahead, these times are no different.

Change is challenging for everyone.  We often focus on risks, what we might lose; these concerns should be honored.  But a shift in thinking about realistic concerns can also look at the opportunities.

What’s the last “new thing” that happened in retail/hospitality in Hallowell?  The whole business community can build off the energy that may come with this project.  Be open to what may come.

This is an opportunity.   So many communities have significant historic assets, part of their town’s story, that are sitting idle waiting for someone with imagination, expertise, resources and guts, to take it on.  Hallowell has a developer who is willing to work with you all, to address your concerns so the project really does add value to the community, fiscally, economically, culturally, environmentally.  This is extraordinary.


Consider joining GrowSmart Maine.  This is what we do.  And so much more.

Emails and newsletters to keep you up to date.

Events Around the State: Smart Growth Forums and annual Summit

Advocacy in Augusta and occasionally with our Congressional delegation

Bridging the Divide in Portland: improve public process so residents understand the city’s and developers’ process, and know when/how to engage to have meaningful impact.

Making Headway in Your Community is a 6-8 month program to dive in deeper to explore what matters most in a community and how to support that while building trusted relationships and connections essential to make things happen.

We have an Agreement with Maine Farmland Trust to provide Technical Assistance for communities committed to supporting farming.

Notice I didn’t talk about smart growth.  I didn’t dive into the silos of housing, transportation, local economy, etc. GrowSmart highlights how these basic principles, in how we design and build our communities, impact the people.