Town on the Rise: Small Businesses Find New Life in Belfast

sotw-belfast streetscapeThe term “boomtown” has polka-dotted periods of American prosperity, from the California Gold Rush to Levittown, Long Island, areas of explosive growth and economic interest have pulled dream seekers for centuries. It may surprise some, then, that amid this decade’s rough forecast of foreclosure and recession, a new, booming center for small business owners  has cropped up in one of the most unexpected places ¾ central Maine.

“There’s been a buzz around Maine that Belfast is on the rise,” says Dorothy Havey, director of Our Town Belfast. “There’s no doubt about it, we are having a true renaissance.” Belfast, a small coastal town with a population of 6,381, just became a Main Street Community in June of this year. However, over the past year and a half, Havey and a network of dedicated volunteers and board members have been working to fill the city’s numerous empty storefronts. “It was a convergence of many entities saying, ‘We want business here, what can we do?’” says Havey.

Though Belfast initially lacked small business variety, the town had a good existing infrastructure with its two main employers ¾ Athenahealth® and Bank of America. As business owners started to express interest in Belfast’s prime location on the coast, Main Street’s place in the process began as a space locator. Entrepreneurs would call Our Town Belfast to be directed to one of the properties on the program’s comprehensive list that fit their specific needs. “We successfully reframed our situation; instead of ‘empty’ storefronts, we now had ‘available’ storefronts,” comments Havey.

With Our Town Belfast’s hard work, as well as essential contributions from local banks willing to make flexible loans and an enthusiastic city council, Belfast attracted 47 new businesses in one year. Twenty-eight of these businesses are brand new, and the rest have either expanded or relocated from other areas. Below, four of Belfast’s successful newcomers share their stories:

Front Street Shipyard: President and Managing Partner JB Turner

sotw-front street shipyardAbout a year ago, JB Turner joined forces with two other ship builders, Taylor Allen and Steve White, to realize the dream of a large-scale shipyard. “When we were looking around, Belfast stood out ... it has so much flat land that we wouldn’t have to go up hills with the ships, and that’s very unique in Maine,” says Turner.

Aside from the area’s physical attributes, Turner found the reception from city officials to be fantastic; “It was really a full go from the city council and committees…they were very accommodating with the zoning changes we needed, and even sped up some of the other processes so the yard could be ready for the summer season.” 

Turner and his other partners (now five in total) have built a flourishing business that will eventually employ as many as a hundred men and women to build, service, and repair yachts from around the world. “The shipyard is a big project that has generated excitement and interest in Belfast,” says Havey, “And we are really glad to have it.”

City Drawers: Owner Dee Bielenberg

sotw belfast citydrawersDee Bielenberg never really had a deep-seated dream to open a successful underwear boutique; she simply owned an empty Belfast storefront that wasn’t renting. When she finally decided to make her own use of the property, Bielenberg simply asked herself “What do people say they need, but can’t get here?”       

“Underwear was [one of the items] that always came up in our big-box debates,” says Bielenberg, “Belfast is at least 45 minutes from any sort of big-box store or mall where people generally buy [staples] like undergarments.” Indeed, Bielenberg says that over the years, Belfast has come close to approving a big-box presence two or three times, but has always balked at the last minute. When Bielenberg, who has a background in apparel, saw the opportunity to both fill a need and keep business local, she immediately put her storefront to use.

City Drawers has been open one month, and business has been thriving. “I’m hoping the store won’t be so tourist-driven,” comments Bielenberg, who is well aware of Belfast’s summer rush and winter dwindle for local businesses, “I stock a mix of small independent labels and items that interest tourists, but I also sell the basics; so I am hoping to develop a year-round local/loyal customer base.”

Katwalk: Owner Katherine Loblein

sotw belfast katwalk

Though Katherine Loblein opened her first business, the Lookout Bar and Grill, five years ago, she always dreamed of owning a clothing shop as well. “My mom owned a store when she was my age,” she says, “So I guess that’s where the [inspiration] came from.”

Loblein got the final push she needed when her business partner at the Lookout opened two additional restaurants- “I felt like I needed to catch up!” Loblein jokes. Friendly competition aside, Loblein saw that Belfast was on the rise and decided that it was the right time to purchase additional property. Her transition from food service to retail has been a welcome one; the overhead costs have been lower, and Loblein manages to run Katwalk Fashions by herself without sales staff (though her mother does help out one day a week).

“Overall it’s been really great,” says Loblein, “Though I thought I would be the only one with the brilliant idea [to open a new business in Belfast]…I guess not!” 

BELLABOOKS: Owners Gary Guida and Kim Cashman

sotw belfast bellabooksBELLABOOKS was originally located in Bedford, Virgina, a town nearly the same size as Belfast, but, according to Guida, with nowhere near the same tourist draw. “When we decided it was time to relocate, we decided to look around in Maine since that’s where Kim grew up,” says Guida, “And when we drove up the coast into Belfast, we felt at home immediately.” 

After purchasing both a storefront and a new home in Belfast, Guida and Cashman found themselves moving 27,000 pounds of inventory up from Virginia to Maine in the middle of winter. Their migration seems to have paid off, though; open only a little more than a month, BELLABOOKS has been having one of its best seasons ever.

Guida is no stranger to Main Street, in fact he was the vice president of Bedford’s board of directors. However, he says that Our Town Belfast has a special consciousness and energy that he hadn’t encountered before. “They look after the entire business community, and they make sure everyone has a voice. I’ll see Dorothy on the street and she will always check in to see how we are doing,” comments Guida, “[Our move] has been such an amazing change. It’s like the sun coming up.”

 

Recently, Havey decided to host a breakfast to celebrate the amazing feats of new business in Belfast. As the word spread, the event soon snowballed to involve the entire community—from city officials to veteran businesses. The resulting 47 business “ribbon-cutting” breakfast ceremony took place in a local restaurant. Amid the chocolate-covered cinnamon buns (a local delicacy) and jugs of hot coffee, citizens gathered to hear the mayor and the economic development director talk about the city’s booming present, and even more promising future. Veteran business owners chatted with newcomers, offering support and advice about what to expect during the different seasons. As 9 a.m. came around, the party dispersed—off to fresh storefronts and new wharves, ready to take on the day ahead.