PORTLAND — Congress Street businesses are sprucing up their appearance, thanks to a city initiative that will result in nearly $600,000 of storefront improvements.
But not everyone is happy with the work being done on building facades, signs and awnings between Forest Avenue and Oak Street.
The city’s Facade Improvement Program, funded by a federal Community Development Block Grant, provides matching grants up to $20,000 for downtown businesses and property owners to renovate their exteriors.
About $184,000 will have been granted by this spring, when the program completes its second round of funding, according to Nelle Hanig, business programs manager for the city. That amount will have been met with close to $400,000 of private investment for improvements to 15 storefronts on Congress Street.
Masonry work, window replacement, painting and the installation of a new sign were recently completed at 575 Congress St., which houses the Empire Chinese restaurant and performance space.
“The changes are wonderful … We wouldn’t have been able to do all this without the city’s funding,” said Theresa Chan, co-owner of Empire. “This part of Congress Street is starting to look great.”
The renovation was made while the building was closed for about two months, after Chan and Todd Bernard bought it in March. It was previously the home of Empire Dine and Dance.
Next door, at the Strand Building, 565 Congress St., work is continuing to replace paneling, windows, brackets and signs.
The upgrades there affect four businesses leasing street-level space: restaurants India Palace and Pom’s Thai Taste, design shop Mad World, and Speckled Ax, a coffee shop.
Construction outside their doors has hampered business and annoyed customers.
“I know that it’s hurt us, it’s definitely affected us,” said Speckled Ax owner Matt Bolinder. “We’re just trying to make the best of this, and hopefully in the end of it will be worthwhile.”
Bolinder wouldn’t estimate the monetary damage. But the facade facelift forced the coffee shop to close for a day, has slowed foot traffic, and tied up nearby parking spaces, he said. And the timing couldn’t be worse.
“It’s hard for us because we’re open seven days a week,” he said. “Construction outside the door is never going to be good.”
A passer-by outside Bolinder’s shop last week agreed.
“It’s bad enough I have to schlep around in the snow, when the sidewalks are also crowded with everyone doing Christmas shopping,” Eric Crews, a West End resident, said. “But on top of that, I’ve had to deal with scaffolds and obstacles on the sidewalk.”
An employee of India Palace also noted the impact of the facade work, saying “business has been pretty slow since the construction started.”
Attempts to obtain comment from representatives of Mad World and Pom’s Thai Taste were not immediately successful.
Facade program plans call for three other buildings to receive facelifts this spring: Mechanics Hall at 519 Congress St., the Sawyer & Co. flower shop at 737 Congress St., and 486 Congress St., the site of Paragon Salon.
Despite the construction hassles, business owners are generally supportive of the improvements.
“I’m hoping (the facade) will be more energy-efficient,” Bolinder said. “Last year, you couldn’t even see into (Speckled Ax) because the windows were covered with condensation.”
Chan shared the optimism, saying, “The construction is a little bit of a pain, a bit of a nuisance … but the changes need to be made, and everyone needs to be patient.”
Ultimately, Hanig said, the facade improvements benefit more than individual buildings.
“The program has such a positive impact on the streetscape because we’re making improvements that people really see,” she said. “The result is a more cared-for, attractive streetscape, which draws more people to shops, restaurants and the downtown.”
Pedestrians navigate a portion of Congress Street in Portland, between Forest Avenue and Oak Street, where federally funded improvements to storefronts have hurt business.