A shopper passes a vacant storefront Feb. 22 on Main Street in Freeport, where retail outlet stores are dying. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)
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Any visitor walking around downtown Freeport can tell the town has seen better days.

While nicely maintained buildings still line immaculate sidewalks, the brook still babbles at L.L. Bean, and new LED lights shine brightly on Main Street, one can’t help but notice more of those attractive buildings are sporting “for lease” signs, fewer people are navigating those sidewalks, and parking is a snap in the acres of lots that surround the village.

John Egan, chairman of the Freeport Town Council, in the Portland office of Coastal Enterprises Inc., where he is chief investment officer: “I don’t think I could tell you the last time a retail store opened up (in Freeport).” (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

In the town’s shopping heyday crowds clogged the sidewalks, Main Street, and parking lots in their quest for fashion bargains from the hottest national brands. Cars inched down Main Street, stretching as far as the interstate exits on busy summer days and many local students spent their summers working at places like Coach, London Fog, Dansk, Burberry, and United Colors of Benetton. 

But no one could have imagined the Freeport of today, after the rise of internet shopping and the ability to buy discount designer clothes at the click of a button ended the retail boom.

“If you’re coming here looking for outlet stores, you’re going to be disappointed,” Keith McBride, executive director of the Freeport Economic Development Corp., said recently. “Outlet stores are finished and have been for years and years. We know that we’re not that anymore. So what are we?”

Vacancies on Main Street

McBride, who estimates the outlets have been dead or dying for about 20 years, and Town Council Chairman John Egan are both excited about some of the changes in town – more locally owned businesses, a burgeoning arts community. But firm plans for filling downtown’s empty storefronts remain elusive.

Just last week, Azure Café became the latest business to close, announcing that it would shut its doors Feb. 23 after not being able to negotiate a lease with its landlord. The Main Street restaurant had been in business for 18 years.

“We have worked in earnest, together with our landlord, to find a way forward to a new lease term,” an announcement on the restaurant’s Facebook page said. “We were both asking for something the other could not give.” The statement went on to say that there are “no hard feelings” and that it was Azure’s decision to walk away.

“Community people are concerned about vacancies and empty storefronts,” McBride said, adding that most buildings downtown are privately owned and those owners “don’t really respond to the public’s cries. … We need to connect the public’s goals with the private sector’s and help people get rents that justify investment.”

A couple of retail listings at 48 Main St. and 42 Main St. advertise rents at $35 and $23 a square foot, respectively – similar to retail rents in downtown Portland, which has been booming in recent years. A vacant space on Wharf Street in Portland is listed at $25-$30 per square foot and one on Commercial Street is $35. In Brunswick, spaces in the Cook’s Corner Shopping Center are going for $20-45.

“Opportunities for brick-and-mortar retail are possible, but there are empty storefronts for months and months and months. There’s been a lag in the real estate market to pick up on that,” Egan said.

He said prime locations commanded high rents in the past because national brands were willing to pay and it’s going to take time for those rents to come down to a point where they reflect current demand.

“I don’t think I could tell you the last time a retail store opened up here,” Egan said.

According to McBride, vacancies have remained stable over the past five years at 8.5 percent, but there are more small spaces currently available, which increases the perception that there are more vacancies. 

High school teacher Kyna Pitula of Freeport on the front steps of the Bartol Library building, which has been vacant since Abercrombie & Fitch closed. She believes the building could find new life as a teen center. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

Playing the library card

One current vacancy is owned by the town: the Bartol Library building, which sits on Main Street adjacent to the L.L. Bean Bike, Boat, and Ski Store.

The town rented the building for retail use for 20 years, but it has been vacant for a year since the last tenant, Abercrombie & Fitch, moved out. The town issued a request for proposals for the building in March of 2019, giving preference to proposals that would serve the community.

“The council was clear it wants a tenant that is not retail,” Egan said. It didn’t prohibit retail businesses from applying, but none did and the building remains empty although the rent is less than most others, at $15 a square foot.

“Do we have a vacancy problem or not? A lot of people say it looks bad for the town and I don’t disagree with that, but it’s certainly not pointing to gloom and doom,” McBride said.

He cited approved development plans by Berenson Associates, which owns Freeport Village Station, to build on a plaza adjacent to 58 Main St. as a sign that developers think Freeport is still a good investment.

Freeport resident Kyna Pitula, a high school teacher, said the Bartol Library building with its proximity to the high school would make a great teen center. She would like the town to look at making changes that could bring people together and help people make connections with their community. She suggested more restaurants, art galleries, or bars. 

“It doesn’t seem like much is going on (downtown) and I find that a little scary,” Pitula said. “There needs to be a vision of what the town is and it doesn’t have to be shopping.”

Four strategies

The Freeport Economic Development Corp. has come up with four strategies to “focus our direction as we wade through this transitional period,” according to a report released by McBride last September.

They include diversifying the economy, reducing barriers to development, enhancing the “experiential nature” of Main Street, and coordinating marketing around the outdoor recreation opportunities in town.

McBride identified two specific projects he is working on right now: L.L. Bean’s request for a tax increment financing district and a new shared marketing calendar that he said would be a “big help” to local businesses.

The Town Council has been looking to bring mixed uses to the downtown and to that end recently changed parking requirements to encourage apartments and offices on the second floors of buildings. Egan said issues like parking requirements “sound dull,” but can really make a big difference in a community.

Amy Cartmell, a Freeport-based Realtor with Keller Williams, said she’s seeing “more and more folks wanting to live as close to the downtown area as possible, in part to cut back on time spent in the car and gas consumption.” 

Egan said he hears all the time about balancing activities for residents and tourists. “The council is well aware that retail is changing and we’re trying to listen to what the community wants,” he said.

McBride said that this transitional period for Freeport is “exciting more than anything else.” As national brands have pulled out, he said, they’ve made way for local retail shops, restaurants, and breweries: Stars & Stripes Brewing opened at the end of 2018 and Maine Beer Co., which moved to town in 2013, recently did a large expansion of its facility. 

Hikers in Wolfe’s Neck State Park in Freeport on Feb. 22. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

Growth of arts, recreation

An arts community has also sprung up. Cadenza is a live music venue on Depot Street and Ground Floor creative space offers a performance venue for artists on School Street. With help from a $133,000 allocation from the town, the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Freeport created a cultural center in the First Parish Church.

“The arts are coming from the ground up from the community,” Egan said. “It didn’t exist five years ago and adds a lot to a healthy community.”

Following one of the FEDC strategies, there is also coordinated effort between Visit Freeport, the FEDC, the Town Council, and others to market the town as an outdoor recreation destination.

Building on the image of L.L. Bean, they are promoting outdoor attractions such as Wolfe’s Neck State Park, Winslow Park camping, Maine Audubon’s Mast Landing Sanctuary, the town’s hiking trails and picturesque shoreline.

Scroll through the photos on the Visit Freeport Instagram page and you’ll see a lot of dogs, boats, and scenic photos of the sunset, rainbows, and shoreline.

What’s conspicuously absent for an organization that started as the Freeport Merchants Association and a town that once drew tourists for its outlet shopping, are photos of the stores.

Freelance writer Lori Eschholz lives in South Portland.

L.L.Bean’s corporate headquarters in Freeport. The company wants the town to establish a tax increment financing district to support an expansion. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

Amid the vacancies, L.L. Bean invests in Freeport

No discussion of Freeport would be complete without looking at the town’s most famous business and largest employer, L.L. Bean.

After suggesting that it might move its corporate headquarters, the company recently announced it would stay in Freeport, expand its headquarters, and seek approval for a tax increment financing district for the project.

“Aligning with the town and Visit Freeport on being an outdoor destination and diversifying the offerings Freeport provides to the community and visitors benefits us all,” Carolyn Beem, senior manager of public affairs for the company, said. “In addition to outdoor activities, Freeport has great restaurants and brewpubs, accommodations, cultural events, as well as shopping, which all contribute to a robust downtown.”

Bean’s expansion is projected to cost $110 million with $80 million of that for construction. Work has already started while the town begins deliberation on the TIF district, which would allow Freeport to capture a portion of the increase in property taxes for special projects.

L.L. Bean now pays just over 10 percent of the property tax collected by Freeport. Projects earmarked for the TIF revenue include a cleanup of Concord Brook, construction of a community events center, and building a trail to downtown.

Town Council Chairman John Egan said that Concord Brook is designated as an impaired brook by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the town pays a penalty on it every year. The cleanup will go above and beyond what the EPA requires to eliminate that penalty, he said.

Egan said L.L. Bean is a good neighbor and doesn’t ask much from the town. In his four years on the council, he said, this is the first “major engagement” he’s had with the company. 

“It’s a balance of identities,” Egan said. “They don’t feel like it’s their town and the town doesn’t feel like it’s their company.”

The first public hearing on the TIF proposal was held on Feb. 25. Egan said they had been looking at a two-month process, but he expects L.L. Bean to delay the proposal after hearing feedback that things were moving too quickly.

— Lori Eschholz

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