Many Biddeford community members will remember the downtown master planning process between 2009-2011, as they participated in “storytelling” activities, neighborhood meetings and community forums. While this project was a collaboration among the city of Biddeford, the Heart of Biddeford and the Orton Family Foundation, the end result is the product of more than 1,000 local people’s input.
The planners began with storytelling projects to unearth the values that Biddeford holds dear, such as “history is important,” “diversity is a plus” and “great small-town feel.” Next, they hosted 35 neighborhood meetings, where a list of key issues were developed. Then, for each of seven issues, they held community workshops to come up with concrete goals and objectives. Finally, the master plan advisory council wove these into a master plan document, which was prioritized through community forums, and finally presented to the City Council in June 2011.
The master planning process brought to light the love that people in Biddeford have for their downtown. Memories of roller-skating dates, lunch counters and bustling foot traffic merged with visions for how Biddeford can be in the future. Mainers have always valued the “sense of place” offered on their Main Streets, and we are finding in Biddeford that as the downtown, our schools and neighborhoods, our business parks and major chains all work together, we are creating one vibrant community.
A recent review of progress on the master plan showed that 80 percent of the short-term projects have been completed or are in progress, and many of the mid-term projects are well under way. For example, to improve downtown appearance, the Heart of Biddeford used a grant to help several businesses increase their storefront lighting. To create a vibrant downtown business environment, the city and Heart of Biddeford collaborated to create the Main Street Challenge. To improve downtown appearance, the Downtown Development Commission began a program to install dog-waste receptacles in parks. To preserve our natural resources, the city leveraged grant funds to install new light posts on lower Main Street that use LED lighting.
Many of the things that are enjoyed in our city right now – from the RiverWalk and WinterFest, to murals on buildings and more University of New England student involvement – were influenced by the ideas that came out during the master planning process.
Biddeford is now faced with a decision about a downtown parking structure. The topic of parking, as well as other infrastructure need to revitalize the downtown, came up consistently at every stage of the master planning process. Specifically, the master plan advises the city to “Determine the location, design, and operation of parking garage(s)” and to “Build a parking garage” (Actions E.1-3 and 4).
As with any decision involving public funds, it is key that the community become educated about all the costs and benefits associated with the project. My hope is that we all become well-read about why Biddeford requires a parking garage for the Mill District and downtown expansion, who will own and build the garage, how the garage will be financed and what opportunities will be lost if we don’t build a municipal parking garage now. Information pertaining to all these questions will be presented at upcoming City Council meetings, as well as be available on the city’s website.
Investments in the downtown lead to increased income in the form of property taxes. They also lead to the creation of a place we all can be proud to call home and to welcome visitors. Biddeford may have had a heyday when the textile mills were operating, but we are now in a great position to create a new vision for the city. Community involvement, input and awareness will be key for bringing this new future about.
Delilah Poupore is the director of Heart of Biddeford. Her column appears monthly.