Norway hopes to attract more stores
By Amanda Johnson
NORWAY—The most challenging time for small businesses in Norway are the spring and winter months when summer residents and vacationers have returned home, and the cold and slippery roads make it difficult for people to drive, John Williams, executive director of the Oxford Hills Chamber of Commerce, said recently.
“I think the issue surrounding some of these smaller businesses is being able to sustain themselves outside of the normal busy traffic times of the year in this area, which are the summer and the early fall during foliage season,” Williams said, adding that seasonal residents have a huge hand in helping to maintain small businesses. “It’s when you get into the winter months and the spring time that it creates the most challenge here in this area. The reason for that is simply because you don’t have as many people who are here.”
That may be why several businesses have come and gone, he says, but Norway Town Manager David Holt has a different point of view.
“That’s just the nature of most small businesses,” Holt said. “Some that are family or personally owned tend to come and go more.”
To help Norway small businesses, or small businesses in any neighboring town in Oxford Hills, Williams says the answer may lay in changing the face of small towns from vacation spots to places where people can make their homes, or possibly build businesses.
“I think part of it has to do with … working to make Oxford Hills more of a destination for people not just during the summer … but also for people who are coming through here during the ski season, during the snowmobile season, during the winter months, when there’s still a lot of recreational opportunities in the area,” he said, and added, “How do we get people to come and keep them here?”
Brenda Melhus of the Norway Downtown is hopeful that Norway will see more development and economic growth. To her, having some successful businesses here already encourages others to come to town.
“We have a core of businesses that are attracting people from other places to come as well,” Melhus said, referencing Cafe Nomad, Rough and Tumble, Books N Things, and more. “We’re just adding to the inventory of people and adding to businesses. I believe that Norway is growing.”
Holt agrees. He believes that although small businesses are vulnerable to changes, he has faith that their uniqueness makes Main Street special.
“Part of it is that their charm makes them original and unique,” he said.
And yet, when traveling down Main Street one inevitably notices the empty commercial spaces where businesses once were. Some spaces that are currently vacant and either up for sale or lease include the Babbling Brook Quilt Shop, a vacancy in the Opera House, the first floor of the Crane Block building at 374 Main St., and the vacant Chinese food restaurant building located between Ari’s Pizza & Subs and the Fare Share Co-Op. Many of those spots are leased through Bisco Properties of Norway.
Tony Moore, the owner of Bisco Properties, said that leasing a downtown shop can range from anywhere $550 per month to $1,000 per month. The open space in the Opera House requires a two-year lease that is $800 a month the first year and $850 a month the second year. The Crane Block building space is currently up for rent for $1,800 per month, according to Moore. Commercial Norway rental prices are similar to those in South Paris, Moore said.
“I don’t think it’s just the rent that’s pushing [businesses] out,” Moore said. “It’s because the business is not a business that worked and they don’t have the capital to pay the rent [when] they’re losing money to get the business established.”
Moore added that some business owners who have two-year leases find that it takes that long to get established and can’t afford to keep them going much longer than that.
“They don’t have the funding so they have to bow out,” he said.
Despite the empty storefronts, local restoration and preservation groups want to continue to see business grow and, like Holt, have faith that Main Street’s uniqueness and charm will draw entrepreneurs to Norway.
Barbara Deschenes of the Norway Restructuring Committee, which focuses on the management of downtown Norway businesses, said that in order to attempt to fill vacant commercial spaces, the committee does a lot of advertising. She added that an event on Main Street that has helped boost the traffic to the area is the Thursday farmers’ market.
Andrea Burns of Norway Downtown agrees with Holt that Main Street’s personality is its appeal.
“Main streets are very personal,” said Burns, adding that the town’s attention to preserving the environment and old buildings shows how proactive the it is. “It’s a place for people who want a unique setting, unique values and authenticity.”
What makes small businesses different from corporate businesses, says Burns, are the attitudes of local business owners and the small-town vibe.
“It’s a personal touch of awareness,” Burns said. “That’s where we have an edge.”
Erin Place contributed to this report.