Retail is Changing. What is Freeport Doing About That?

Keith McBride on September 05, 2019 in Ec. Dev. Challenges, Experiential Retail, Marketing, Strategic Planning

Both the taxable retail sales data and anecdotal evidence from local retailers supports the conclusion that online retail shopping is impacting brick and mortar retail sales, but it’s only a part of the story, especially in Freeport.

For example, despite the decline in retail sales and the prevailing narrative about the demise of retail, vacancy rates in Freeport’s downtown are virtually unchanged since 2014, the same timeframe covered in the PPH article of August 4, 2019.

While the total vacancy rates peak (typically in the first and second quarter of each year) to 9.5-9.75%, and dips to 6.5-6.75 percent (in the third and fourth quarters) it has trended at around eight percent for the entire five year period.  Townwide, the vacancy rate has dropped from 10.6% in August 2014, to 8.5% where it is today.  This is because while the downtown vacancy has remained steady, there has been a precipitous drop elsewhere in town, from 21.2% to 13.7% on Lower Main Street, and from 10.2% to 6.3% on Route 1 South.

This same timeframe saw remarkable investment into Freeport.  Most notably, Maine Beer Company opened their facility in 2013, and have re-invested and expanded that location continuously ever since.  Most recently, their new tasting room and expanded brewing operation is a result of tremendous growth, and signifies a multi-million dollar investment in Freeport.  Downtown, Linda Bean purchased the historic property at 31 Main Street that had been vacated by Reebok and Rockport shoes in 2012, and converted the building into an antiques retail showcase, and this year, the building saw the completion of a stunning renovation that pays tribute to the building’s place in Freeport history.  (The Antiques Showcase website has a great summary of the building’s history.)   In 2015, Dr. Brian Knighton moved his medical practice into the newly constructed Freeport Medical Center on Durham Road, which housed 4 new medical office users.  And there’s much, much more.

The Freeport Medical Center under construction in 2015.  

The town and FEDC are currently engaged in a strategic visioning effort to focus our direction as we wade through this transitional period.  The town finds itself in the highly advantageous position of already being a premiere Maine destination, where many communities are trying to decide how to become a destination.  With that in mind, our visioning revolves around 4 basic strategies for the downtown:

Strategy #1: Enhancing the experiential nature of Main Street

Because of the efforts of L.L. Bean, Visit Freeport and others, we already host signature events like concerts, festivals and parades, but we could do much more.  The Arts and Cultural Alliance of Freeport is off to a roaring start; the town allocated $133,000 towards ACAF’s redevelopment of space in the First Parish Church into Meetinghouse Arts, a 200 seat performing arts venue with a gallery for visual artist exhibits.  Their fundraising effort is on-going.

Retail will always be a big part of Main Street.  Small, local retail businesses are driving some of the demand for space, and Freeport has seen an influx of these users in the last year.  Bella Boutique, Grand Gourmet, Skordo, Maine Remedies, Ellie Anna, Blue Lobster, Wanderlust, Gypsy Rags and Freeport Feed Store are all examples of small, locally-owned retailers who have found locations in downtown Freeport in the last year.  These are businesses that can only be visited in Freeport, making the downtown even more unique and experiential.

And there is room for much more.  There are many ways to make Freeport more experiential, including transportation opportunities, public art, new wayfinding, pop-ups, outdoor oriented/themed activities, and kid-friendly entertainment options.

Strategy #2: Reducing Barriers to Investment and Development

In the last year alone, over $21 million of property have changed hands in downtown Freeport.  The buyers are bullish on Freeport’s future, which contradicts the narrative that reduced retail sales are an economic death-knell for the town.  On the contrary, change always presents opportunity for those with vision, and these transactions shows that there are investors with an interest in being part of Freeport’s future.  We can help by finding ways to clarify and simplify the regulations and processes for projects in Freeport, in ways that encourages new, mixed-use development while protecting the historic and aesthetic characteristics of our downtown that makes Freeport so unique.

Strategy #3:  Coordinated Marketing

Freeport is an outdoor recreation town.  Our retail shoppers enjoy a pedestrian-friendly, open-sky experience where they can park once and walk all day between shops, parks and restaurants.  But we can do more to let our community, our neighboring towns and visitors know about the unique outdoor recreation opportunities exist, and we can also improve and develop new hiking/biking paths and other four-season recreation opportunities to strengthen this brand.

We are lucky to have a destination tourism agency dedicated to keeping Freeport front-of-mind for potential guests.  Visit Freeport has undertaken a massive effort to upgrade the resources available to guests, including a new web-based map and guide.  And along side their efforts, many retail, restaurant and hospitality businesses conduct their  own campaigns to encourage people to consider Freeport.  FEDC’s strategy will focus on enhancing and amplifying these efforts by finding opportunities to collaborate.

Strategy #4:  Diversifying the Economy

Another explanation for the improvement in the vacancy rate numbers which coincide with a decline in retail sales is that non-retail businesses have surged over this time period.   Retail will always be a part of what Freeport offers, but FEDC’s mission has included a charge to “diversify” the economy, and we have been successful in that charge.  Aside from the aforementioned Maine Beer Company, we have also seen investment from L.L. Bean, whose current plans to renovate their corporate headquarters on Casco Street will be an investment of over $80 million into Freeport.  Wilbur’s Chocolates, Royal River Heat Pumps, New Meadows Marina, and others have all expanded their operations in Freeport, along with many others who have started new non-retail businesses.   We have also seen a surge in residential development, and a demand for downtown residential options.

The changes in retail are not a new phenomenon, nor have they caught Freeport or its retailers by surprise.  Rather than responding and reacting to the change, we are driving the next iteration of Freeport’s economic history.