Saco, ME is breaking out of short-term cycles with long-term thinking

SacoPhoto: Saco, ME, Jasperado via Flickr.

Maintaining New England traditions is at the top of Saco, ME’s agenda. How can this small city maintain the physical, economic, and cultural assets that make it unique while also changing in ways that make it a desirable destination for tourists, homebuyers, businesses, and investors?

Saco recently wrapped up a future visioning process intended to answer these questions and guide future public investments and economic development initiatives. Mayor Don Pilon, a member of Smart Growth America’s Local Leaders Council, explains that short Council terms (lasting just two years) were part of the impetus for the visioning process, known as Bridge 2025. “We all sit down and think through what we want to accomplish in the two years that we have,” Mayor Pilon explained, but there was rarely common vision for what should happen beyond that budget cycle. To establish that, Mayor Pilon deliberately stepped back and supported a process that put businesses, residents, and other stakeholders in the driver’s seat. “This had to be driven by the public,” he explained. “When we’re gone, this needs to be continued by the stakeholders. This is their product, not our product.”

Councilors initially suggested that the process be conducted by the City’s planning staff. But Mayor Pilon and his City Administrator wanted to put planners’ ideas to better use. “Our planners already have jobs. I just couldn’t say, ‘Staff, in your spare time, do the data collection, facilitate meetings with the public.’ I’d rather staff be there on the participant level if they want to. We needed professionals who know who to engage, how to engage them.”

Don-Pilon-5-24-12-40pct Mayor Don Pilon.

As a result, the City hired two independent local consultants to devote three months to conducting focus groups with civic organizations, interest groups, and clusters of businesses from different industries and different parts of the city — such as auto dealers, downtown merchants, etc. — as well as conducting open public meetings and a public survey.

The final resulting vision incorporates ideas for downtown redevelopment, general economic development, and school facilities and addresses residents’ concerns about things like traffic and property taxes. All of it is underpinned by a desire to maintain the city’s friendly feel. Saco’s City Council adopted the vision earlier this year.

The next step is to identify and commit to implementation strategies. “We need to keep the momentum going,” says Mayor Pilon, hinting at one of the risks of visioning processes: maintaining public faith in the process requires some visible short-term action.

In the short term, implementation efforts are likely to focus on increasing activity downtown. Bridge 2025 envisions “a model of blending the quaint historic nature with a bustling modern economy.” As Mayor Pilon put it, “In my town, we’re still struggling with the identity of Main Street.” He has been developing a proposal for a “Startup Saco” based on a successful program from neighboring Biddeford, ME. It would provide a package of financial and business development incentives for three or four businesses that can put together a solid business plan and will locate in some of the city’s empty storefronts.

He hopes to launch the program this fall, but the new vision of Main Street will be realized by a team with many new members. A new City Administrator begins work later this month, and the city’s Economic Development Director, who moved to Saco from “away” (the locals’ expression for people from out of state) late last year, has been getting up to speed on the Vision and the Comprehensive Land Use Plan. The institutional home for Startup Saco is also in the air. The obvious organization to take it on would be the city’s Main Street program, but that is currently without a coordinator. Fortunately, there are other strong candidates with intriguing resources. The Saco-Biddeford Area Economic Development Commission has the ability to pool local resources, and the Saco-Biddeford Chamber of Commerce has a strong sense of the local market and potential candidates for downtown businesses.

In addition to the analysis, fundraising, and outreach work that will go into Startup Saco and other efforts, Mayor Pilon points to a different kind of work that may be more important. The visioning process pointed out a gap between what people need from local businesses and the local business culture. “People would say at these forums, ‘We would like to see Main Street have a better mix of stores and restaurants, not closing down at 8 o’clock at night.’ This is the 21st century – if we want people to come live here or visit downtown, we need to be willing to change. It’s difficult to find a balance between maintaining a New England tradition and accommodating a growing population with growing demands.”

Local Leaders Council