Monday, January 12, 2009

Taylor Smith's Ideas for a Better Westbrook

Keep priming the economic development pump
A few years ago, Westbrook started the transition from also-ran mill town to self-sustaining city-with-a-pulse. Corporate tenants and artists moved into refurbished mill buildings, wooed by cheap rents and plentiful space. Fancy food joints opened up and, before you could say gastro pub, there was a cultural center mushrooming on the banks of the Presumpscot.

It's a great story, but what's the next chapter? Well, I'd say that's up to city officials. It was the city's business-first economic development policies that were instrumental in jumpstarting its recent growth. Fact is, Westbrook was willing to play ball with companies ranging from Disability RMS to Idexx. It actively courted the Bakery Photographic Collective when Portland didn't seem to care that downtown rents were squeezing the group to death.

There are opportunities for Westbrook if it sticks to this kind of economic development strategy. Want proof? Look no further than Lewiston-Auburn, which in the past five years has shored up a shaky economy through savvy self-promotion and--most importantly--a pledge to work with its corporate citizens. After all, it's nice to be wanted.

Fire GovOffice
When my wife and I were house hunting in early 2008, we didn't know much about Westbrook. We heard from a friend--a native Westbrookian--that the schools were good, and we loved Main Street, from the puffy, gothic architecture of the Walker Memorial Library to the brunch trifecta of the
Frog & Turtle, Main Street Café and Guidi's Diner.

But when we went online to learn more about the city, we found one excellent blog (this one) and one god-awful municipal website. From a generic-looking homepage to the stubborn use of Excel files to list trash pickup days, Westbrook's site is always an exercise in frustration. Want meeting minutes from city boards and committees? Good luck sifting through the broken links and incomplete archives. (I admit the site has some cool stuff, including the GIS data that lets us look at some cool maps of our neighborhood.)

I'd be less inclined to rant about the shoddy Web site if it was a city-produced affair. But the fact that the city likely paid a bundle of money to GovOffice--a Minnesota company that sells "powerful and affordable Website management software"--just irks me. My solution: Kick GovOffice to the curb and send whatever dollars are being wasted on its crappy software to a local Web developer. (Oh, and maybe spend a little more time updating those committee minutes, too.)

Keep Westbrook walkable
I grew up in a rural part of Connecticut near the Massachusetts border. It took 10 minutes to get to a main road, and 20 minutes to drive to the nearest grocery store. So when I moved to Portland in the late 90s, it was a revelation to be able to walk to pick up a video or grab a bite to eat.

When my wife and I were considering moving to Westbrook, one of our favorite parts of the city was that it seemed highly walkable. (Sure, it's still a pretty good distance from our house to the Frog & Turtle, but a brisk walk can't hurt after a doughnut brunch.) But all too often, municipal development makes life difficult for pedestrians. My request to city officials: Keep it easy for people to walk downtown. That means keeping pedestrians in mind when any new development comes before the city council. (And, if need be, continuing those hokey crosswalk sting operations the Westbrook PD staged this fall.)

Sound silly? Perhaps. But bear in mind that loads of folks involved in urban planning tout the benefits of walkability. (GrowSmart Maine has lots of good info on the subject.) Fostering pedestrian access, they say, is a key component in making a more robust economy and a stronger community. I believe them.

Taylor Smith is a freelance writer and former editor of Mainebiz, and blogs about the Red Sox at Full Circuit Clout. He and his wife, Kitty, moved to Westbrook in 2008.

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