Swings, misses in the game of retail

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So, only one economic development official from Maine, Windham’s Keith Luke, attends a recent, massive retailing convention in Boston. Meanwhile, a convention speaker tells an audience how Maine’s legislative landscape is a concern for retailers.

Ouch.

It’s little wonder solicited comments from a smattering of retail developers about Maine elicited aging adjectives clipped straight from tourism promotions of yore: Lobster. Touristy. Outdoorsy.

To the retailing world, we’re nothing but L.L. Bean country, way up here north of Portland.

And why not, when only one town sees merit in pitching its development sites on developer’s turf, and our state government’s meddling in local planning is heralded within the retail industry as a potential “first step toward restriction that could lead to prohibition”?

Steve Lebovitz, the utterer of this phrase, was talking about LD 1810, “The Informed Growth Act,” which mandates a developer-funded economic impact study on projects exceeding 75,000 square feet.

Coastal lawmakers pushed the bill, after several high-profile efforts to combat big-box developments cropped up from Wiscasset to Ellsworth, highlighted by the successful campaign of a grassroots group, Our Town Damariscotta, against the siting of a Wal-Mart Supercenter in their town.

Gov. John Baldacci signed LD 1810 into law on Thursday. “This will not stifle economic growth,” the governor said in a statement issued after the signing ceremony, “but will rather enhance the flow of information about a project among developers, municipal officials and the general public.”

Lebovitz, vice president of the International Council of Shopping Centers, pre-doused this optimistic outlook with his remarks, made during the ICSC’s Idea Exchange in Boston on July 11. “The Maine market is already a fairly limited market because of population,” he said. “This [law] doesn’t help.”

For a state ranked just about last in the nation by Forbes Magazine in its recent “Top States for Business” report, hearing an expert on a growing sector of our economy – retail – with this opinion is quite disconcerting.

So is the “Maytag repairman” appearance of Luke. It cost Windham about $500 to send him to Boston, a pittance compared to the potential return from his successes, such as the Walgreen’s pharmacy that recently moved into town from his efforts at a previous conference.

Although we praise Luke’s ambition and wish him luck, breaking his monopoly at future conferences is a prime avenue for other Maine communities to explore.

Drawing developments to Maine is already challenging, according to experts, as low population density and tricky markets can make retailers shy. Combating this takes a strong sales pitch and a welcoming regulatory environment.

So far, it looks like Maine’s 0-2.

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