Businesses weigh in on new sidewalk

By Gail Geraghty
Staff Writer

Some of the regulars who hang outside Ricky’s Diner have little good to say about the new sidewalk that’s been built at the corner of Main and lower Depot Street in Bridgton.

They think it’s a waste of public money that could be better spent elsewhere, since there’s not much reason, in terms of retail development, for people to walk up the street right now.

Lower Depot Street’s new 125-foot long sidewalk defines the street and connects up to the sidewalk on Main Street. Over the next two weeks, a four-foot wide strip of new pavement will be laid at the edge of the sidewalk, and striping will identify five or six new on-street parking spaces.

They just don’t get it, and they don’t plan on changing their minds anytime soon. After all, that sidewalk is blocking their usual parking places at the edge of the Dinan’s Discount parking lot. Now there’s something preventing them from pulling right in and out from the side street — and they don’t like it.

But calls to several owners of commercial buildings located near the street tell a different story, even if they remain a bit skeptical about the long-term redevelopment vision that the sidewalk represents (See guest editorial, Page 1D).

“He has a long-term vision, and if it works, it works,” said Jamie Potter, whose family owns the Ricky’s Diner building and the adjoining Potter’s Place complex behind it, home to professional offices, healing practices and the Tai Chi Society. The family owns beyond Warren’s Florist, all the way up to Rudy’s Garage.

“I like the idea of defining the street. It will help the parking situation for sure,” Potter said.

What Potter would really like to see is a new coat of pavement on lower Depot Street. But Alan Manoian, the town’s Director of Economic and Community Development, said there wasn’t enough money for that. The 125-foot long sidewalk, along with improvements to the municipal parking lot entrance on the other side of Main Street, is being funded with around $25,000 in federal stimulus money allotted to Bridgton.

There will be around four feet of new pavement extending along the sidewalk to smooth over some rough patching left when a water line serving a new sprinkler system was run to Potter Place. Striping work over the next few weeks will also designate around five or six new on-street parking spaces beside the sidewalk.

That’s good, because the new owners of Ricky’s were concerned about parking before signing the lease, Potter said.

“The whole thing is to clarify where the road is. I’ve had some people tell me they didn’t even know there was a road there,” Potter said. “People think we’re neglecting the parking lot in front of Potter Place, but we’re not. (The parking lot) is the road.”

As for the long-term vision for encouraging new development on lower Depot Street, opening up access to Stevens Brook all the way around to the Magic Lantern, Potter is dubious.

“I have mixed emotions on how much people are really going to walk downtown,” he said. “But to be honest, I have seen more and more people walk the street.”

Tony Mallon, who owns the Wizard of Paws building across Main Street, said he applauds Manoian for trying to make the downtown more pedestrian-friendly.

“There’s a mindset that he has to overcome of the people of Bridgton, and good luck to him,” said Mallon, referring to Manoian. “They don’t appear to want anything to change. I have no idea where this new sidewalk to nowhere is going, but I think it’s a start.”

To the right of Mallon’s building is the access road leading to the municipal parking lot. He said he had no idea there was a narrow walkway beside the access road, hidden by shrubs, until Manoian pointed it out to him. A new and improved walkway will be constructed as part of the project. The town is going to need to provide more and more incentives like that to convince downtown building owners to sign on to Manoian’s vision, Mallon said. Like Potter, Mallon sees improved parking as the key.

“I applaud the guy for trying to make improvements, but there’s got to be incentives,” Mallon said. “I’m skeptical.”

Even if he didn’t have his eye on the riverfront’s potential, Manoian said the sidewalk is very much needed for the most basic of reasons: public safety. Cars and delivery trucks pull in and out of Dinan’s lot onto lower Depot Street “from every angle and travel-line imaginable,” making for a very dangerous situation, he believes. “It’s chaos,” he said.

“Chaos” might not be how Zack Schlar would describe the traffic flow from Dinan’s parking lot. Schlar, who owns the former Chapter 11 building, said he’s glad the sidewalk project is encouraging people to take a closer look at improving the business climate in downtown. He said he worked with Manoian before making changes to the store sign at the nearby Food City, which he also owns — and was convinced to tone it down, lighting-wise, to make it “more aesthetically pleasing.” In January, he’ll begin some major remodeling and replacement of refrigeration units inside the grocery store.

Schlar said having defined sidewalks in downtown is “an important piece of the puzzle” in economic development, as they draw attention to the center of town. He was a little concerned that the new sidewalk would interfere with the loading dock at Dinan’s, but his tenant has been able to work around the problem.

“He’s trying to be a good team player,” Schlar said of Dinan’s owner.

Schlar said both business owners and the town need to work together to improve the downtown and reduce storefront vacancies. When the town provides good infrastructure, and businesses respond with their own improvements, everybody wins.

“It’s a business partnership with the town,” he said.

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