One of the most significant but often overlooked aspects of what makes life in Maine special and sets the state apart from the rest of the country are our locally owned businesses. They give our cities and towns their unique character. They infuse our downtowns and neighborhoods with life and vitality. They contribute a great deal to the health and well-being our communities by providing leadership and financial support to civic and charitable organizations.
Perhaps most important, locally owned businesses are powerful economic engines for the state. Unlike national chains, they purchase many of their inputs—from inventory to banking and accounting services—from other Maine-based businesses. By keeping dollars flowing back into the state’s economy, local businesses create more opportunities for entrepreneurship, more jobs, and more taxable income to support schools and public services.
Despite their importance to our communities and economy, Maine’s independent businesses have struggled in recent years. Thousands have closed as national chains have opened stores across the state and captured a growing share of the market. Many Maine towns are now flanked by the same big box stores and sprawling strip developments that blanket much of the rest of the country. And more maybe on the way as national retailers look to replicate the level of market saturation that they have already achieved in other regions here in Maine. Indeed, developers have announced plans to construct two million square feet of new big box stores in the state over the coming year.
The current trends for locally owned retail businesses are sobering. But trends are not destiny. More and more people are beginning to recognize the importance of independent businesses to the long-term health and prosperity of our communities. Hundreds of cities and towns across the country are now moving to curb chain store sprawl and revive Main Street commerce. They are eliminating tax breaks and other advantages commonly provided to big box development and adopting new policies and strategies that strengthen locally owned businesses.
This report opens with an overview of research on the impacts of large chain stores and the benefits of locally owned businesses. It then outlines dozens of concrete strategies to rebuild the homegrown economy. These are organized into three sections. The first section describes planning and land use policies that limit sprawling chain store development and create an environment where locally owned businesses can thrive. The second section discusses downtown revitalization and small business development tools. The third looks at ways independent businesses can join forces to gain economies of scale and educate the public about the benefits of supporting locally owned stores.
These three kinds of approaches work best if pursued simultaneously. Downtown revitalization programs have little chance of success if planning policies allow unlimited retail development on the outskirts of town. Likewise, strong planning policies that contain big box sprawl may not be enough to revive independent retail without a proactive small businesses development and downtown revitalization plan. Finally, active and engaged business owners and a lively educational campaign are key to winning public support for new policies and to shifting spending back to Maine’s locally owned businesses.