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HARPSWELL — One question seemed to resonate the most Wednesday night when business owners and the consultant hired to devise an economic development plan for the town discussed the business climate:
“How do people find Harpswell?”
It’s a question Susan Horowitz of Ash Cove Pottery said she and co-owner Gail Kass often ask their customers, because the town can be hard to find if people don’t already know about it.
“This is the biggest barrier I see, at least to the summer businesses,” Horowitz said. “It’s a very hard thing to find, and once they have come to Harpswell, they come back.”
The town hired Planning Decisions of Portland and Hallowell in September to develop the plan, at a cost of $12,000, which will be paid through monthly invoices. Town Administrator Kristi Eiane said all but $2,000 of the budget is coming from a Community Development Block Grant the town received through Cumberland County from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Frank O’Hara, Planning Decisions president, led Wednesday night’s discussion at the town office and said the plan will take about six months and several meetings, with much research from start to finish.
Kass, marketing chairwoman of the Harpswell Business Association, which hosted the meeting, said the HBA has made a tremendous effort to promote the town in the past year.
The accomplishments include the placement of a business information kiosk in the town office’s foyer, an ad placement in July’s Down East Magazine, and the editing and printing of maps and guides, among other efforts.
“Harpswell’s done a really big effort at getting itself on the map. We have the Maine state map, which now has an inset with our map in it,” she said. “For years, it was totally obliterated. You couldn’t tell how to get here, or that there was a town.”
O’Hara wanted to know how businesses are faring, and solicited comments on problems the town is facing, along with possible solutions to fix them.
“I did look at the retail sales data for the community before I came down tonight, and from 2010-2011, retail sales increased about 20 percent in the community,” he said. “And it grew across the board.”
Richard Moseley, president of HBA and owner of the Harpswell Inn, said his business “has been very steady” this year.
“Usually through the summer, there are ups and downs, but starting in the first of May through right now, it’s really holding up well,” Moseley said. “We’ve had three nights since May 1 with no guests … I’m ready for a rest.”
Horowitz said her business is one of the few that stays open with steady hours.
“I think that we get more traffic than other businesses,” she said. “We had an incredibly strong May this year and a lower than usual June and September, but a booming July and August, so go figure.”
Other business owners provided nuanced responses.
A construction firm owner said he’s seen an increase in business, though he’s not sure about other firms in the area. John Halpin, vice president of the HBA, said his tile design business has mainly seen work out of town and out of state. And a sailboat owner and landlord said both his charter business and his rentals have done well this year.
Dan McMahon, a financial adviser with Shepard Financial, said in preparing for new economic development in Harpswell, people need to be prepared for change.
“One of the biggest challenges I see, especially on the coast and not just here in Harpswell, is people’s willingness to change – to change with the times, to change with the laws, to augment their services to be more service-oriented,” McMahon said.
And to make sure there is unity between Bailey Island, Orr’s Island and Harpswell Neck, Kass said the town must work on marketing itself as one, instead of as the three separate entities.
“We need to have some sort of overarching branding that brings us together,” she said, so they think of us as Harpswell.”
HARPSWELL — The town will hold its first open forum on economic development at 7 p.m. on Oct. 25 in the town office meeting room.
Sarah Curran of Planning Decisions will lead the discussion. Topics will include what kind of economic development the town wants, assets that have potential for growth and what role should the town play in development.
“It will be kind of a broad meeting where anything goes,” Frank O’Hara, Planning Decisions president, said Wednesday.
Town Administrator Kristi Eiane said the town is also looking for people to be part of the economic development strategy committee, which will meet once a month from November through February and provide suggestions and feedback to Planning Decisions.
— Dylan Martin