Belfast was recently accepted as a member of the Maine Downtown Network, a younger sibling to the downtown revitalization program Main Street Maine.

What happens next remains to be seen, but according to representatives of Main Street’s parent organization who met with city officials and business owners for the first time Aug. 10, it won’t happen overnight.

Speaking to a group of 20 assembled at City Hall at the beginning of the daylong meet-and-greet, Roxanne Eflin of Maine Development Foundation touted the Main Street program but joked that running a successful program was “not rocket science,” but something “much more complicated than rocket science.” And the changes would likely be so gradual that she recommended taking “before” pictures to keep for comparison.

“There’s no single, big fix for downtown,” she said. “It’s comprehensive and it’s very incremental.”

Describing what the Main Street Program offers is nearly as difficult as cataloging its effects. Tangible benefits of membership include bonus points on applications for some grants, and access to certain types of training.

William King, one of the founders of the Main Street movement in Maine confirmed that the program is somewhat ephemeral, but said the connections made between towns, either directly or at the four or five institutes held each year in Augusta, are a real benefit of membership.

“If you get 40 to 50 people who represent 20 to 25 towns, you get this networking between the towns,” he said. “Everybody’s working toward the same goal.”

Sometimes the inspiration is born out of a sense of competition, but King said this could be healthy too.

“You need a little competition. You need to see that Bath is doing better than Belfast,” he said. “Then you go back and you try to do better.”

One of the most difficult things for a new Main Street program, he said, is dealing with longstanding perceptions of the downtown.

“In these towns, where things have been going downhill for years, people have seen everything tried before and they get into this attitude that nothing’s going to work,” he said. “And that’s the toughest thing.”

On a walking tour of the downtown commercial areas and waterfront, King noted that Belfast has more vacant storefronts than many communities, but said he believed there was good energy for the new program.

A feature of the downtown that caught his attention was the treatment of second and third floor residences on the south side of Main Street as they appear from Pendleton Lane, which he described, approvingly, as “very unusual.”

Big box stores came up several times during the day — tourists don’t come to coastal Maine to shop at Walmart, Eflin said; they come to shop in the downtowns — and City Councilor Mike Hurley took the opportunity to distance Our Town Belfast’s efforts from the big box “civil war” that has polarized Belfast in recent years. Tensions have subsided for the time being, but would likely be rejoined in the future, he said.

“We are not going to be the troops in that war. I think it would be a fatal mistake for the Main Street effort,” he said. “What I say is, ‘If you’re for big boxes, we’re still focusing on downtown. If you’re against big boxes, we’re still focusing on downtown.'”

King urged the Belfast group to concentrate its efforts on downtown and avoid the temptation to include outlying businesses.

“If you concentrate on downtown, the rest will take care of itself,” he said.

Eflin added to the sentiment. “Instead of spreading out, go in. This is where the jobs are,” she said, indicating the downtown commercial area.

Asked what difficulties a nascent downtown revitalization program might face, Shannon Haynes, executive director of Main Street Waterville said she had experienced some difficulty communicating with out-of-town property owners, and did not immediately have the support of the city.

“We really had to prove ourselves as an organization, but I think we’ve done that,” she said.

City Planner Wayne Marshall outlined major city projects at various stages of completion: the Coastal Walkway, slated to connect the footbridge with Steamboat Landing, for which the city is currently seeking proposals; the Downtown Waterfront Master Plan, also in the RFP stage; and the recent purchase of a segment of the Belfast & Moosehead Lake rail corridor for future recreational trail and rail uses.

Marshall also mentioned the city’s tax increment financing district — a public projects fund that would get a major kick if the former Stinson Seafood property is ever redeveloped, he said — and the city’s design review guidelines, recently amended by the City Council to require mandatory compliance in the downtown commercial and waterfront districts.

Both the TIF and design review jurisdictions roughly match the area that would be the focus of the Maine Downtown Network efforts.

In recounting how different towns have approached the challenge of revitalizing their downtowns, Eflin recalled a recent meeting with officials in Millinocket, one of 13 towns, along with Belfast, to be chosen last year as members of the Downtown Network.

One of the attendants at the Millinocket meeting said he wished the town looked more like Williamsburg, Va., Eflin said.

The comment drew laughter from the group assembled at Belfast City Hall.

“I said, ‘You’ve got some really great things the way you are,'” Eflin recalled, indicating the small, mid-century buildings in Millinocket’s town center. Understanding the town’s identity could help the town brand itself, she said.

“Many of you said, ‘Why am I here?'” Eflin said to the Belfast group. “It’s because of the architecture and the people. It’s where we come to work and play. It’s the heart of the community and you have to take care of your heart.”