Milo Riverfront Project to rebuild downtown
January 08, 2009 - TRC
Long before fire ripped through Milo’s downtown and consumed nearly one whole block of the business district on Sept. 14, discussions were underway about how to improve the area. At the first meeting of the newly-formed Milo Business Association on Dec. 15, lifelong resident Val Robertson noted the Piscataquis County Economic Development Council has done more for Milo over the past two years than had been done for decades before.
Downtown revitalization for Milo has been on PCEDC’s radar since the summer of 2006 when door-to-door surveys were conducted with many business owners. The initial meeting of a Milo downtown revitalization group, held on April 23, 2007, drew about 50 interested residents. Those residents, together with Thomas Kittredge, PCEDC’s executive director, and Dr. Kenneth Woodbury, PCEDC’s community development specialist, have made great progress on bringing the vision to reality.
In the fall of 2007, Woodbury met with Jerry Brown, acting town manager. They determined that Milo should go for a Community Development Block Grant, and that the first step would be to apply for a $10,000 CDBG Planning Grant.
“So a public hearing was held,” Woodbury said. “We asked for people to become part of a downtown revitalization committee that included the one already in place, but added more people to it. We had several meetings of that group to determine the scope of the project, and to share ideas for what the downtown should look like.”
The group decided that for revitalization purposes “downtown” would be from the Milo Town Hall down Main Street to the Dover-Foxcroft end of the bridge over the Sebec River. It was decided that the downtown work should be based on a very successful national program operating in this state as Main Street Maine. It is this organization that has brought Waterville and other failing downtowns back to life. Membership requires a paid coordinator, which many communities can’t afford. However, Main Street Maine is generous in sharing their techniques, which are being employed in Milo. Trainings will soon be available for communities interested in Main Street Maine; Woodbury is looking into ways to fund attendance by PCEDC staff and members of Milo’s downtown group.
The Main Street model called for formation of several committees -- Milo residents at the public hearing gladly stepped forward. Kittredge has been working with the Economic Development Task Force to explore what sorts of businesses and services are desirable and will be successful in downtown Milo. A Design Team has been working with CES, Inc. A Downtown Marketing Team stands ready to promote the new downtown and special community events when the time comes.
And on Dec. 15, the Milo Business Association held its first meeting. The association is meant to allow all Milo business owners and managers to network and support each other, share marketing, plan special events and share a common voice when advocacy is needed for Milo’s small business community. The next meeting is slated for 5:30 p.m. on Jan. 12 in the dining room of the Milo Town Hall; pizza will be served. RSVP to Woodbury at 564-3638 so that enough pizzas can be ordered.
PCEDC applied unsuccessfully twice for funds to build a pocket park on a concrete slab jutting out into the river in the downtown area. Funders were leery because the slab was privately owned rather than public property. In March 2008, the town submitted for the $10,000 CDBG Planning Grant.
“Forty-eight Milo residents and business owners, as well as the Three Rivers Kiwanis and TRC Maine, pledged money toward the matching funds,” Woodbury said. “And the town voted $2,500 toward the [$3,770] match.”
That application was successful, and CES, Inc. of Brewer was hired to do the design work for the new and improved downtown – streets, facades and green spaces.
“Then the lower block burned down,” Woodbury said. A hardware store, florist shop, game room, restaurant, upstairs rental properties and the former town theater were all lost in that blaze, and a pizza shop was so damaged that it only recently reopened. “That was a Sunday. On Wednesday, the governor came to do a press conference and to bring his economic team to see what the state could do. They came with at least another $5,000 to add to our $10,000 planning grant in recognition that we would need additional engineering work done.”
Governor John E. Baldacci and his economic team have come through several times. When Jeff Gahagan, Milo’s new town manager, said there was no funding to clean up the remains of the two uninsured buildings, the state provided $30,000 for that work.
Downtown redevelopment discussions now turned to rebuilding the lower block as one unit, and how to acquire the properties so this could be achieved. PCEDC and the town requested $20,000 toward property acquisition. At first the request was denied, but Woodbury persisted and with help from Bill Osborne at the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, and Lance Boucher, senior policy advisor to Gov. Baldacci’s office, the funds came through. There will be a town meeting at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 29 at the Milo Town Hall to approve the purchases of the two uninsured properties. Both deals are expected to close before year’s end and the town holds an option to buy on a third property.
Then Woodbury heard the Sebec River was not included in the Riverfront Community Development Bond Program, a pool of funds he was eyeing for potential redevelopment money. He made an application to the Maine Office of Community Development pleading the case that Sebec was a significant river in the Milo area, flowing into two other rivers [Piscataquis and Penobscot] that were already included in the bond program. After a few telephone calls and further explanations, Mike Baran, MODC’s director, approved adding the Sebec River.
On Dec. 18, Governor Baldacci announced that Milo will receive $197,300 from the Riverfront program. Woodbury said funds will be used to acquire the concrete slab and build a pocket park, extend the Veteran’s Park on Water Street out to Main Street and for additional purchases of lower block properties.
These funds required a two-to-one match, but all the previous funding the town received for downtown work, as well as recent work by the Maine Department of Transportation on the Elm Street/Main Street intersection were allowed as match.
“Then we got approval from Congressman [Michael] Michaud to carve out $280,000 from the Safe Streets Project as part of the downtown redevelopment,” Woodbury said. “That will include new pedestrian and street lighting, crosswalks and other safety enhancements to make the downtown pedestrian friendly.”
Funding is still being sought to finish financing the safe streets project, and for façade improvements to existing downtown buildings.
“It is very important that we get all the infrastructure done and out of the way,” Woodbury said, noting that it would be disastrous to develop a new business block and then start digging up streets.
Just as it is vital to build new streets before opening new businesses, Woodbury said it is vital for Milo residents to become involved in the planning process now, rather than waiting and finding that they are displeased with some aspect of the plan later. Without the input of as many residents and business owners/managers as possible, the groups working so diligently have no way of knowing if they are truly meeting the needs of the town as a whole. PCEDC will also be conducting further surveys of residents and the business community to gather vital input.
For a listing of upcoming committee meetings that the public is welcome and invited to attend, call Woodbury or Kittredge at 564-3638.
By Sheila Grant, Featured writer for 'The Piscataquis Times'
NOTE - This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of the TRC Alliance Team.