Paris town officials accept downtown revitalization study

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PARIS — Selectmen formally accepted a study Monday evening aimed at nourishing the town’s community character and reorienting its downtown on a new economic path. 

“The Strategic Plan for Market Square” devised by Paris businesswoman Sandra Swett was met with aplomb even as the study’s author vented frustration that she has grown discouraged working with the town’s elected officials.

“I think that you need to go to a revitalization committee meeting and show them that you support what they’re doing, because a lot of people that would be helpful have been standing in the background, disgusted,” Swett said. 

This final draft appears to rectify concerns raised by selectmen nearly two months ago that the $8,500 study was incomplete and unprofessional. On Monday, the board at various points said their criticisms had been addressed. 

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“Thank you for the work. It’s a significantly different document from the first (draft) to the second,” Selectman Robert Wessels said.  

The move at the selectmen’s meeting Monday evening was largely expected after they received and reviewed a final draft of study two weeks ago. The board agreed to approve the document — and finalize payments to Swett — pending the redaction of chart on crash statistics provided by the state, which were deemed to be unclear. 

After a tax hike in 2013, Paris owners in the downtown area banded together in informal meetings to address the town’s economic woes and brainstorm a means of alleviating the property tax pinch by spreading it upon a wider base. Their fluid coalition — the South Paris Revitalization Forum — eventually asked Swett, who completed a similar study in Kentucky, to approach the town about the work. 

The 71-page study covers a breadth of topics — from traffic flow and bike lanes, to community gatherings and beautification projects — all buoyed by data on demographics and suggestions from a vast survey of community groups.

Selectmen did not address how the suggestions of the study will be implemented, though some of the work, such as establishing new park spaces, are already in the works. 

While some suggestions are deemed as broad, long-term works in progress, such as providing tax incentives to new encourage new businesses teaming with nonprofit and business communities to promote the town to prospective outsiders, others are more concrete, like the acquisition of the former Paris Farmers’ Market to renovate space for artisans or the establishment of a senior living center to address the needs of the town’s aging population. 

The study aims the reorient the town along a new economic course by attracting businesses and residents alike who want to live and work in its downtown, which Swett described as the town’s “heart and soul.”

The revitalization of its downtown on community-friendly, pedestrian and artistic lines is viewed as an overdue reaction to the closure of its factories in the 1980s, adjusting the local economy to the reality that residents travel from, not to, the town to work. 

The area targeted by the study is bounded in the historic Market Square region, roughly encompassed by the railroad tracks along Route 26 and Western Avenue, the streets around Moore Park, the base of Paris Hill and the Billings dam. According to the study, it includes 78 parcels of land, 34 businesses, 23 residential and rental units, three churches and two town-owned properties. The study contains a photograph and description of each property, its condition and its use. 

Driving the findings are predictions drawn from the 2010 U.S. Census that the town will grow by roughly 100 residents over the next 15 years while neighbor Norway is predicted to shrink by about three times that number, and about 60 percent of its 5,183 residents are 35 or older. Now, slightly less than half of the population is employed and the town’s unemployment is pegged at 7 percent — teetering slightly above the national average. 

“…This plan is not a panacea for the current economic woes of our rural community, but rather is intended to present ideas for innovation to take Paris into the future…” Swett wrote.

ccrsoby@sunjournal.com

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