SPACE AVAILABLE —  A coalition of landlords, downtown revitalization activists and economic development organizations are offering qualified applicants use of vacant storefronts for July and August, rent free; participants are asked only to cover the cost of utilities. Organizers hope “Project Start-Up” can fill some of downtown’s empty storefronts during the busiest time of the year for downtown foot traffic.

By Peter L. McGuire

NORWAY —  Local entrepreneurs are being asked to pitch their ideas for downtown businesses as part of “Project Start-Up” – an ambitious program aimed at filling some of the vacant storefronts on Main Street.

Qualified applicants will be offered space in one of the empty storefronts rent-free for July to August. Prospective business owners only have to pay utilities for the two months.

Applications for the program, which have been available since May 13, are due by the end of the day, June 3.

Local groups hope the project will add momentum to the movement to revitalize downtown Norway and draw new businesses onto Main Street.

The project is a collaboration between landlords, Norway Downtown, the Western Maine Economic Development Council and SCORE.

Tom Curtis, a member of Norway Downtown’s economic restructuring committee, has been credited for spearheading the program.

“I feel, personally, that it is an enormous chance for someone that is just starting out in business and would like the exposure they can get in Norway or someone … who might want a satellite office in town,” Curtis says. “This is a golden opportunity.”

Curtis says he heard about similar initiatives in Biddeford and Gardiner and pitched the idea to Norway Downtown and then Western Maine Economic Development Council. 

The idea, says WMEDC Director Glen Holmes, is to give prospective businesses a leg-up during downtown’s busiest time of the year.

A high volume of foot traffic during the summer, as well as events like the Norway Arts Festival, offer exposure for the new businesses and will hopefully give existing merchants a bump in customers and sales, Holmes says.

At the same time, landlords can cover their costs and develop interest in their open retail space.

“This could really be the win-win opportunity we have been looking for in downtown Norway for a while,” Holmes says.

The hope is that at least some merchants will see enough success to want to sign a lease and stick it out for the long-term, Holmes explains.

“We really don’t know what to expect,” Holmes says. “The businesses will really have a great advantage if they participate in this program … This will take some very special entrepreneurs, and we are looking forward to working with them.”

Envision Rumford is trying the same approach this summer.

Downtown associations in Gardiner and Biddeford launched a similar initiative during the 2012 holiday season, aiming to entice shoppers to buy local during one of the busiest times of the year.

Patrick Wright, executive director of Gardiner Main Street, says the holiday start-up was a great experience.

Beyond helping new businesses and boosting the downtown economy, Wright says, the start-up project showed people inside and outside the community that local groups were dedicated to improving downtown.

“The intangible results are perhaps even more valuable than just the number of sales for neighboring merchants that happened during that holiday season,” Wright says.

Even though only one of the three businesses that opened up during the program signed a lease, Wright says the buzz created by the program helped.

In the months since, other businesses have opened up in the historic downtown and Wright predicts remaining spaces might be filled by next holiday season.

Applicants

Holmes says three storefronts are going to be open for the program and four applicants have already expressed interest in setting up a business.

Those involved in the project are encouraging more applicants, however, and everyone is being encouraged to spread the word about the program.

A committee made up of members from WMEDC, Norway Downtown, the Norway Downtown Economic Restructuring Committee, a SCORE consultant and landlords will review applications from prospective entrepreneurs.

“We’re looking for anything that will be a good fit for downtown Norway,” Holmes says.

All businesses need to be opened by June 28 and remain in operation until September 2. Successful applicants need to keep their stores open at least four days a week and average at least seven hours of operation per day, Holmes explains.

Everyone is being asked to spread the word about the program, and quickly –  electronic applications, which can be found at WMEDC and Norway Downtown are due back by the end of the work day on Monday, June 3 by 5 p.m. Successful applicants will be notified by June 7.

Finished applications must be sent electronically to info@wmedc.org.