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Houlton’s downtown revitalization gets boost from federal program

HOULTON, Maine — Faced with an ever-changing dynamic, Houlton is exploring ways it can improve not only its historic downtown, but also the overall business climate of the community.

But it needs assistance from state and national sources.

Officials with the Maine Downtown Center, as well as the National Main Street Center, were in Houlton Wednesday to provide precisely that assistance. 

Matt Wagner, chief program director for National Main Street Center, and Perri Williams from the Maine Downtown Center visited with residents and business owners to better understand the community and assess the needs of its business owners and residents alike.

“The visit gives us a better understanding of the community and the local economy,” Wagner said. “We wanted to know how the local community supported local businesses and entrepreneurs before we got too involved in our work.”

That work includes leveraging national trends in rural communities to see if they could benefit a community like Houlton.

Houlton was one of nine communities chosen to receive assistance from the Maine Downtown Center as part of its Entrepreneur Ecosystem program, funded in part by Congressionally-designated spending.

“The interesting thing is Houlton is probably one of less than 50 communities nationwide that is focusing on rural entrepreneurship,” Wagner said. “It truly is commendable that a town such as Houlton has taken on that challenge, which will hopefully set the tone for other communities to follow.”

Houlton has been a Maine Downtown affiliate community for a number of years, and has demonstrated the capacity to complete the project and also to implement the strategies from the plan when it is completed, according to officials with the program.

Earlier this fall, the town brought back its Downtown Renaissance Committee, whose purpose is to breathe new life into the existing downtown.

During Wednesday morning’s meeting, there was a recurring theme of finding Houlton’s niche in an ever-changing business environment. The town’s impressive fiber optic network and low electricity rates were singled out as key elements that set the town apart from other communities in Aroostook County.

Those elements could be a focal point to draw more people to the area, who could then work remotely.

Others highlighted the slower pace found in the community as one of its greatest assets.

“There’s something special about Houlton that I absolutely love,” said resident Paula Woodworth. “It’s a place where you can be happy with living a very simple way of life.”

“It’s also a wonderful place to raise a family,” added resident Iva Sussman.

With a population of approximately 6,000 people, Houlton also serves as the economic hub for a number of smaller satellite communities. Many of those who work in Houlton do not necessarily reside in the town, but they regularly spend money at local businesses.

While visiting the Shiretown, Wagner and Williams met with about a dozen business owners and community members at the County Co-op and Farmstore on Main Street. The two also took a tour of Houlton, visiting its local businesses before concluding with another meet and greet opportunity at the Houlton Higher Education Center.

Desires to draw more people to the area, while figuring out how to retain those who already live here, was another dominant theme during Wednesday’s meeting.

“The thing to remember is that you can’t be everything to everyone,” Wagner said. 

The town will continue working with the MDC and National Main Street Commission in the coming months to come up with new and innovative ways to enhance its business environment.

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