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  • Writer's pictureMonique Coombs

Working Waterfronts, Downtowns, and Entrepreneurship

When you think of coastal towns, what comes to mind? Seagulls, bustling harbors, charming downtowns, and a unique blend of tradition and innovation. In a recent panel hosted by Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, Maine Downtowns Center, and SEA Maine called “Working Waterfronts, Downtowns, and Entrepreneurship”, we explored the intricate relationship between working waterfronts and vibrant downtowns, featuring insights from a panel of experts deeply connected to these coastal communities.

The panel was facilitated by Anne Ball, Maine Downtown Center, and panelists included:

Amanda Cunningham, Director, Our Town Belfast

Dave Gogel, Director, Rockland Main Street

Kathy Given, City of Belfast Harbormaster

Tyler Waterson, A Morning in Maine Sail Tours, Rockland

Monique Coombs, Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association (and fishing family)

The synergy between working waterfronts and downtown areas is undeniable. These two elements rely on each other in numerous ways. In Rockland, for example, the downtown planning process places a strong emphasis on physical infrastructure that connects Main Street to the waterfront, enhancing pedestrian access and improving the visual appeal with elements like lighting and sidewalks. Public engagement around the Harbor Trail extension into the downtown area further underscores the commitment to this connection.

Downtowns serve as hubs of commerce that can increase awareness of the fishing and working waterfront entrepreneurial ventures among visitors. However, it's crucial to maintain a delicate balance between the diversity of working waterfront businesses and those in the downtown area. The working waterfront encompasses everything from the fishing industry to tourism-based activities like sailing charters.

Signage plays a pivotal role, not only in preserving the historical significance of the waterfront but also in educating visitors about current activities. For example, Maine's "lobster brand" can promote products like buoy ornaments and themed home goods, but many consumers may not fully understand the fishing industry behind these products. Establishments like Luke's Lobster on Commercial St. in Portland excel in providing mixed-use experiences where visitors can dine while watching lobster boats in action.

The dynamics of working waterfronts and downtowns are continually evolving, and recent changes have significant implications for their connection. Examples include: increasing interest from big-money investors further up the coast, leading to condo developments and non-working waterfront projects; growing opportunities in aquaculture; and, disconnections between working waterfront businesses, municipalities, and state authorities regarding ordinances and regulations.

These changes have intensified post-pandemic, with the influx of recreational boaters to waterfronts adding development pressures. Large corporations have received state grants to build mega-yacht docking facilities in Rockland, highlighting the challenge of balancing infrastructure needs and responsible development. Unfortunately, many of these grants are not available to heritage industries and working waterfront properties that are specifically for commercial fishing activities.

To manage these changes, comprehensive plans and ordinances can be tailored to support positive investments and working waterfront infrastructure. Municipalities can define their priorities and utilize comprehensive plans for proactive decision-making. Good planning allows them to better prioritize and manage challenges as they arise, such as how to balance the types of uses of their waterfront. One such tool that can be used to help towns plan well, is MCFA’s Working Waterfront Inventory Template.

Despite the challenges, several opportunities await coastal communities:

  • Educating the public about waterfront activities within downtown areas. This can include interpretative at the waterfront, images, and storytelling.

  • Exploring municipal ownership of piers and waterfront land to ensure public access.

  • Fostering collaborations among small business owners to advocate for themselves and their enterprises. This can include “experiential downtown” opportunities for visitors like oyster farm tours and eating oysters at a local restaurant.

  • Sailing charters, such as A Morning in Maine Sail Tours, not only provide tourism experiences but also educational opportunities that connect residents with their surrounding environment. It's essential to expand the market beyond tourism, offering deeper and more engaging experiences.

Having a working waterfront and vibrant downtown offers immense value to coastal communities.

Unlike some areas, these communities benefit from downtown revitalization and development organizations that provide essential resources to entrepreneurs. These organizations play a pivotal role in fostering economic growth and community engagement.

Coastal entrepreneurs and working waterfront businesses can support each other in various ways like co-promoting businesses, shared interest in the success of the overall community, even among rival businesses, and collaboration to support area youth and aspiring entrepreneurs, ensuring the sustainability of heritage industries.

Here are some of the key questions the panelists addressed during the discussion:

Aquaculture: It requires different landside support and facilities than traditional fishing, and density in aquaculture entrepreneurs has proven successful in showcasing opportunities for young people and job creation.

Harbormaster Career Pipeline: Training and role requirements vary, with some harbormasters involved in law enforcement. However, affordability of living remains a challenge for those filling these positions as well as encouraging a next generation of harbormasters.

Cruise Ships: Managing the number of cruise ships can balance tourism and economic impact, allowing municipalities to proactively manage tourism pressures and investments in waterfront infrastructure. For example, Rockland has capped the number of cruise ships to six at this time.

Climate Change: Long-term planning must account for sea-level rise, downtown infrastructure resilience, and emissions reduction. Federal funding for climate-related challenges and infrastructure resilience is expected, making sustainability a priority for waterfront entrepreneurs.

Coastal communities are navigating the intricate connection between working waterfronts and vibrant downtowns, embracing change while preserving their unique identities. As these communities evolve, their commitment to education, collaboration, and sustainability ensures a bright future for both their working waterfronts and downtown hubs.

More information about MCFA’s partners:

Maine Development Foundation’s Maine Downtown Center (MDC) is a Main Street America® Coordinating Program and was established in 1999. MDC currently has 10 nationally designated Main Street Maine programs, 14 state designated Maine Downtown Affiliate programs, and works with scores of other communities on revitalization and improvement efforts.

SEA Maine is bringing together industry leaders and committed partners to develop a roadmap and action plan for the future of Maine’s seafood economy. SEA Maine’s priorities include workforce development, economic growth, and resiliency.

Together, we persevere.

Other posts about MCFA's working waterfront panel series can be found HERE.



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