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February 14, 2018

Filling empty space quickly isn't new to Freeport

Photo / Maureen Milliken
Photo / Maureen Milliken
The property at 100 Main St. in Freeport is looking for a new tenant after the Tommy Hilfiger outlet moved out.

Even Freeport isn't immune from the pinch of the "Amazon effect," which may be, in part, why there are so many empty storefronts in town.

But make way for the "Northern Lights effect," said Keith McBride, executive director of the Freeport Economic Development Corp.

While the numbers for the last quarter of 2017 aren't in, McBride said downtown had a very good season, similar to the fourth quarter of 2016, which is the first time since he's been keeping track that a Freeport non-third quarter exceeded $100 million in retail sales.

McBride has been keeping track since 2006.

He attributed to the high fourth-quarter numbers to L.L. Bean's Northern LIghts celebration — an outdoor holiday festival that begins in mid-November and ends on New Year's Eve. This is the second year the retailer has held the event.

The draw for shoppers is a big example of the creative thinking needed to fill storefronts in the 21st century retail world he said.

'Always going to be vacancies'

Both McBride and Greg Boulos of CBRE | The Boulos Co. in Portland say that while the Amazon affect — the hit bricks-and-mortar retail increasingly takes from online shopping — may be in a small part responsible for empty space in one of Maine's biggest shopping meccas.

But leases expiring at the same time, staffing issues and the normal seasonal downtown are also factors.

McBride said that the third quarter, when Maine's tourism is at its height, has traditionally been the best quarter in Freeport. The first quarter is the slowest.

"It's very typical for this time of year," McBride said. "It's not a large macro-trend."

He said that when it happens in noticable spaces, it seems like more of an issue. He said a few years ago when Reebok, Rockport and Timberland all left at the same time, there was a similar scene.

Boulos, too, said, "There are always going to be vacancies."

This year's empty storefronts include the prominent 100 Main St. corner space across the street from L.L. Bean that housed the Tommy Hilfiger clothing store for many years, as well as 76 Main St., where Nine West shoe store was, and 42 Main St., which most recently was home to The Children's Place outlet.

McBride says he's "pretty confident" the former Hilfiger space, brokered by Lerner Real Estate Group of North Andover, Mass., won't be empty for long.

CBRE | The Boulos Co. is the broker for 76 and 42 Main, among other Freeport properties.

"We've had a flurry of potential activity down there," Boulos said Monday.

Embracing the new paradigm

Boulos said the popularity of online shopping has an effect on national retailers who may lease the stores, "But Freeport itself doesn't have issues."

Boulos said that he knows the spaces won't stay empty for long.

"Good location and good pricing" fill spaces, and Freeport is a stable market.

McBride said that the effect of online shopping in Freeport is a fraction of what shopping malls are experiencing.

"We're not seeing the bargain-basement stuff," he said.

Property owners who can't find ways to fill their space will sell buildings to those who are ahead of the curve.

He said niche businesses in small spaces do well, but the owners of bigger outlet-type space have to think more creatively.

The same number of businesses are using smaller spaces, he said. The Northern Lights celebration is an example of creative thinking larger retailers have to do to keep bringing people to stores.

"There are reasons to shop online, and there are reasons [to shop in stores]," he said. "Everybody is going to find out what [their stores can offer]. Freeport is doing that. The town is proactive," he said. "This is our retail core and this is what goes on here."

He pointed to the changes to the zoning ordinance that allow "artisan food and beverages" that opened the door for food trucks in town.

"It's part of Maine, and it's part of foodie tourism," he said. "It's experiential. It's about eating, drinking."

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