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Officials optimistic despite decision by L.L. Bean to leave Congress Street

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Officials optimistic despite decision by L.L. Bean to leave Congress Street

PORTLAND — City economic development officials said they are disappointed, but confident that Congress Street will survive the departure of L.L. Bean.

The Freeport-based retail giant L.L. Bean last week announced it will not renew its lease at 542 Congress St. next year and will close the outlet store by September 2010.

"As leases are due, we review each store and its positions," Bean spokeswoman Carolyn Beem said. "Since the opening of the outlet store in Freeport Village Station, it made more sense for us to focus our efforts on the Freeport business."

Beem said the outlet stores in Portland and Freeport are the closest of any of Bean's other stores and it made sense to focus on the Freeport location. There are 14 employees at the Portland outlet store, and Beem said efforts will be made to find jobs for them within the company.

In the past year the recession has forced L.L. Bean to impose a wage freeze, eliminate 150 jobs, offer early retirement incentives, close a call center and postpone plans to open seven stores. A retail store was opened in Dedham, Mass., in July, and Beem said there are plans to open stores in Malvern, Pa., and Rochester, N.Y., next year.

She said when Bean opened in Portland in 1996 it was beneficial to the revitalization of the Congress Street area, and the district has continued to grow.

"It is tough to have to close stores, but the Portland arts district is growing," she said. "There are other opportunities for growth in the area."

Although Greg Mitchell, Portland's economic development director, said he is disappointed by Bean's decision, he agreed with Beem that the future of Congress Street does not rest solely on one business.

"There are a lot of possibilities for the space that will be vacated by L.L. Bean," he said. "There are galleries, entertainment venues and restaurants that already make the street vibrant, and that combination boosts activity."

He said the economic development office will work with the property owners and commercial brokers to find an occupant for the space.

"We are open to ideas and will be working for the next 60 to 90 days reaching out and making direct contact with people who may be interested," he said.

There have already been a number of ideas mentioned, he said, but would not discuss them.

"A challenging market allows for a certain amount of creativity," Mitchell said.

Jan Beitzer, executive director of Portland's Downtown District, said because the L.L. Bean store is 20,000 square feet with entrances on Congress and Spring streets, it would be possible to create a few individual spaces instead of one, large store.

"There is flexibility in a location like this," she said. "It is nice for developers to have a single space to work with, but with retail struggling, creating numerous small spaces can be an advantage."

Beitzer said the reduced cost to start a new business or project could be the recession's silver lining. She said people may have more motivation to start their own business, since the overhead is often lower during a recession, and there are more opportunities to fill vacant spaces.

"To lose the L.L. Bean name as a destination retailer is difficult, but the arts district is in a growth mode and is stable at this point," she said. "We understand it is a business decision."

Amy Anderson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or aanderson@theforecaster.net