Two of the hottest topics in Belfast in recent years — big box stores and performing arts centers — have all but disappeared from local headlines. Despite their apparent differences, each was pitched, in its time, as the cattle prod that would jolt Waldo County’s sleepy, and somewhat lost, shire town out of its post-MBNA economic slump.

But neither materialized, and in the meantime, the city has moved on — most notably with the conversion of the former Stinson Seafood property to Front Street Shipyard and an unexpected surge in downtown business openings that has been turning heads around the state.

What relation, if any, these developments have to the non-arrival of a Walmart or a performing arts center will probably never be known, but the twin lighting rods of yesterday’s culture wars are probably not gone for good. When they do return, it won’t be to a city of vacant storefronts and a derelict waterfront, though what political climate they will meet is anyone’s guess.

 

Walmart, or similar

Walmart announced plans to build a Supercenter on a Route 3 lot in 2000, but after seven years of political struggle over what would be the city’s first big box store, Walmart backed away. The city had, ironically, just made up its mind that it wanted the store. But Walmart was nowhere to be found, and in its wake, the mega-retailer left the city to do a lot of soul searching.

On one level, the store would have brought inexpensive general merchandise and groceries to town, saving residents a trip to Rockland or Bangor for discount goods, and giving the city’s lone supermarket, Hannaford, some competition. Some jobs would have been created and the business would have added to the city’s tax base.

On the flip side, opponents saw the arrival of a Walmart, or similar store, as a threat to small businesses and the character of Belfast.

Dana Keene, one of the more outspoken advocates for a large, discount, general merchandise and grocery store, said he believes some things have changed for the better in Belfast in the last year or so, but that the need for what he and others have in the past referred to as “shopping opportunities” still exists.

Keene applauded the developers of Front Street Shipyard for not only bringing a job-creating development to the city, but also for braving the contract rezoning process imposed by the city on the former Stinson Seafood property, and also on the yet-to-be-developed Route 3 parcel the city zoned for a large retailer in 2007.

“There’s not too many developers with the economy even the way it is [who would take the risk], they’d just look right over us,” he said. “They’re going to come where there’s some guarantees.”

Contract rezoning differs from traditional zoning in that there are no fixed rules at the outset. Proponents of the system say it allows the city to reject potentially undesirable parts of a development and also gives the developer the flexibility to bargain for features that wouldn’t fly under standard zoning rules, like allowances for taller structures or shorter setbacks from adjacent properties and roads.

Opponents of contract rezoning, like Keene, believe the veto power retained by the city keeps developers away because they don’t want to buy the property then find out they aren’t permitted do what they had planned.

On the recent business boom in downtown Belfast, Keene pointed out that some of the new business owners don’t need to turn a profit for their livelihood, as in the case of a retirement business.

“But the folks that need to, I think they’d like to see something to draw people back from Brooks and Monroe and Jackson,” he said, referring to Belfast’s position as the county seat. When he was young, Keene said, the downtown would be bustling year round.

“Right now it’s bustling,” he said, “but it’s not a good thermometer because we’ve got to see if it’s doing the same thing in January.”

Keene said he still sees as many people doing their shopping out of town as he has in past years. And by doing so, he said, they may be inadvertently hurting small Belfast businesses.

“Several folks that used to buy vehicles in town, they buy them elsewhere,” he said. “Not because they don’t get a good price here. Not because the people aren’t friendly and courteous. They just happen to be up there buying groceries or getting whatever they need.”

Price and availability of goods figured in a 2006 survey done by the city’s Retail Review Committee, formed specifically to determine whether Belfast would benefit from having a Walmart or similar store come to town. The survey found that most essential goods were already available in Belfast at reasonable prices.

Jon Cheston, who helped conduct the survey along with volunteers from Belfast Senior College, said recently that with the influx of new businesses the conclusions of the survey probably hold more true today than they did at the time.

This has less to do with the recent boom of downtown stores, he said, though women’s underwear was one of the items that was reportedly hard to find — Dee Bielenberg even jokingly referred to this finding as the rationale behind her new Main Street underwear store City Drawers.

A bigger factor, he said, is the addition of large discount stores like Ocean State Job Lot and Goodwill that opened in the years since the survey was taken.

Cheston, who also served on the City Council from 1996 to 2001, said he was initially opposed to having a big box store, but began to feel differently after serving on the Waldo Community Action Partners board of directors, where he learned that the social service agency’s biggest out-of-town public transportation trip was to the Walmart Supercenter in Brewer, where Belfast residents were buying their groceries.

“That caused me to reassess my position on the whole matter,” he said. “I thought if we could get a full-service discount supermarket, that is something we do not have.”

The Retail Review Committee also looked at studies and took anecdotal evidence from other municipalities in Maine that already had big box stores. In some of them, Cheston said, the downtown was devastated in a way that was consistent with the lore about big box stores. But in other places like Brunswick and Topsham, he said, the Main Streets thrived in spite of the new competition.

“I think there’s evidence both ways,” he said. “And I don’t know that we ever understood the difference between those [municipalities] where there was devastation and those where there was not.”

Rockland has been frequently cited by big box advocates as a city that has been able to support large retail and maintain a vibrant downtown. But Cheston said Rockland is somewhat unique because the Farnsworth Museum gives the downtown something that he likened, in commercial terms, to an anchor store.

Walmart recently announced plans to leave behind the company’s Rockland store and build a new $28 million, 150,000-square-foot Supercenter in Thomaston. The project is still under review, but representatives have expressed a desire to start construction in 2012.

VillageSoup attempted to contact Walmart multiple times for comment on the possibility of returning to Belfast, but received no response.

City Manager Joe Slocum said based on an April conversation, he expects to meet with the owners of the Route 3 property zoned for a large retailer, Bob and Gary Bahre, sometime this summer.

But Slocum said he had not heard of any plans to develop the Route 3 property.

“Not one word,” he said.

 

Performing Arts/Civic Center

The performing arts center, an idea that has been tossed around for nearly 30 years, was re-envisioned as a multi-use “civic center” in 2009 and early 2010, capable of hosting everything from theater performances to tradeshows and weddings. Supporters believed it would draw people to the area, who would in turn patronize other city businesses.

As with Walmart, the most intense debate with regards to an events or performing arts or civic center has been around what role the city should play. In the case of Walmart, advocates wanted the city to get out of the way. Advocates for the civic center have, by contrast, all but begged the city to get involved.

And the city was involved, commissioning an extensive feasibility study on the former Mathews Brothers showroom in 2009. The final report was glowing, but in the interim, the Council distanced itself from the project. When advocates asked the city to buy the building and fund the initial renovations at a cost of around $2.4 million, the Council said, in effect, it would make a contribution, but not take the lead.

A group of citizens quickly formed an independent organization dedicated to opening the Belfast Civic Center, as it became known. A website for the proposed facility ambitiously included a countdown in days until it would open.

Scootch Pankonin, one of the principals of the group, said recently that she was unaware of the countdown clock, but confirmed that she and others are still pursuing the idea of converting the former Mathews Brothers’ showroom on Spring Street in Belfast into a multi-use facility.

The group is taking the summer off, she said, partly because members have other obligations, but also because of the uncertain status of the National Theatre Workshop of the Handicapped building — the former Crosby High School building was deeded back to NTWH in June after the group performed some remediation and upkeep on the building and paid the past due sewer bill that had prompted a city foreclosure late last year.

In June 2010, the City Council paid for an engineering study of the building on the idea that it might work for an events center, but Pankonin said her group is not interested in the old school building because it doesn’t have the flexibility of the newer warehouse-style showroom.

The reason for waiting, she said is that the possibility exists that the former school, with its two theater spaces, could eventually serve some of the same functions planned for the Civic Center if NTWH were to start using the building again or another group bought it with something similar in mind.

“Belfast, and the business that would come to Belfast, is big enough to support a downtown facility like that,” she said, “but probably not two downtown facilities that are directly competing with each other.”

In past discussions of the Civic Center, representatives of the Belfast Area Chamber of Commerce testified to having turned away large groups because the city had no adequate venue, particularly one that would seat 300 to 400 people for dinner as would be the case at a convention or a large wedding.

“The real key to the Civic Center plan in the large amount of seating,” said Pankonin, “and that’s something Crosby can’t do.”

The former Mathews Bros. showroom was listed at $1.3 million in 2009. Recently the price has dropped to $895,000, and banners now adorn the sides of the building advertising the markdown.

But at the moment, the Civic Center group is sounding a much less urgent note.

“Given that there have been various groups working on it for, what, 20 or 30 years? It makes sense to keep it on hold,” Pankonin said. “… It’s gone in fits and starts for years now, which is not to say that it’ll ever really happen. But it doesn’t seem to die. There seems to be real interest in it.”