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Gardiner 'Pop Up' Project Helps Fill Empty Storefronts
12/03/2012   Reported By: Samantha Fields

With just 22 days before Christmas, the holiday shopping season is in full swing. This year, the town of Gardiner is trying something new to attract more people to its downtown: It's offering free rent to businesses that set up - or "pop up" - in vacant storefronts in November and December. As Samantha Fields reports, the hope is that the extra stores will make downtown Gardiner feel more vibrant, and bring in more foot traffic.

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Downtown Gardiner (above) looks like your quintessential little New England town, particularly this time of year, with a light dusting of snow on the old brick buildings and Christmas wreaths adorning lampposts.

Patrick Wright is the executive director of Gardiner Main Street, an organization dedicated to the economic development and revitalization of this historic downtown. Wright's the one who brought the "pop up" idea to Gardiner. He'd heard about other cities and towns doing similar things, and as the holidays rolled around, he decided it was something Gardiner had to try.

"We had some empty storefronts. Of course, no one likes to see a dark storefront, especially during the holiday season," Wright says.

So he approached local landlords and pitched the idea. Several got on board, and agreed to offer businesses their empty spaces for November and December, for just the cost of utilities.

There were 9 or 10 vacant storefronts in downtown Gardiner when the idea for this project was born. Three of those are now home to "pop up" stores, taking advantage of the two months' free rent. A fourth is occupied, just for December, by a group of local potters who have been doing their own version of a holiday pop up for several years. They're renting their space. And a fifth storefront has been filled permanently.

Wright, and others, say that downtown feels so much more vibrant now, with those storefronts occupied. "That is a lot of the impact we were after for this, too," Wright says. "It's just great to walk past some buildings. Some of these storefronts had been closed for more than a year, had been dark for more than a year. To see the open flag out, and to see activity, is fantastic."

One of those "open" flags is outside Pooch's Second Hand Shop - one of the three pop ups. Pooch's sells donated and consigned items - everything from books to home goods to toys. The proceeds benefit a local animal shelter.

"We did start working out of my mother's garage," says Bethany Rackliff, who runs Pooch's. She says she always hoped to expand out of her mother's garage, but figured saving up the money would take a couple years. The opportunity to get two months free rent - and a storefront on the main street, known as Water Street - made a huge difference. And she's loved seeing the change in atmosphere downtown, too.

"I think that it's wonderful, because otherwise it was just lying stagnant down here," Rackliff says. "And allowing this to, especially for what we're doing, has just allowed us to come in and do this, so I think it's great."

So far, she says, things are going well. "Huge support from the community. Lots of donations, daily. Consigners daily. We're profiting, so we're able to give money. So it's all working really well," she says.

It's still early to tell how well it's working for the town overall. There weren't too many shoppers out and about on Saturday. But local business owners say the busiest shopping days are still ahead.

And most people seem happy to have more storefronts filled - from existing business owners, to local residents, like Jane Stevens. She just moved to town, and has already donated a bunch of things to Pooch's. She says she's a big fan of the pop ups.

"I love it, I think it's awesome," Stevens says. "Hopefully a lot of them will stay permanently. That'd be awesome."

Bethany Rackliff, of Pooch's, says she's already planning on it. And one of the other pop ups, EarthBound - which already has stores in Waterville and Hallowell - would like to expand to Gardiner permanently, too. Some of that will depend on how things go over the next month.

As long as the pop up project creates buzz, and attracts more foot traffic for existing businesses, Patrick Wright says he'll consider it a success. But if one or two of the businesses do decide to stick around permanently? That, he says, would be the "icing on the cake."

Photos by Samantha Fields.

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