|Population||20,942 (2,000 Census)|
|Area||30 square miles (78 square kilometers)|
|Focus Areas||Downtown planning, economic development, historic preservation, redevelopment|
|Methods||Dialogue, storytelling, youth participation, scenario planning, visualization|
|Tools||Community Almanac, graphic facilitation, digital stories, keypad polling|
|Project Website||Heart of Biddeford|
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Biddeford, Maine, a former textile mill town, had long struggled. This old mill city, on the decline for decades with the last textile company closing in 2009, faced stagnant population growth and limited job opportunities. In recent years, Biddeford's image was defined by a trash incinerator downtown. In fact, Biddeford’s nicknames were “Trash Town” and “Stink Town.”
During the town’s Community Heart & Soul® project it became clear that residents did not support the incinerator, even though snuffing it meant losing 80 jobs and revenue from the largest taxpayer. With community support behind them, the city council approved spending $6.7 million to buy the plant and tear it down in 2012. This was potentially risky but turned out to be a catalyst for major change.
Since that happened, as of early 2016, Biddeford had $90 million in approved projects in the pipeline. The 35-acre mill district is being redeveloped including a $50 million boutique hotel and $15 million in affordable housing. Vacancy on Main Street has dropped dramatically. The business and industrial parks are nearly full.
Biddeford’s new tag line reflects the pride the community has for its town: Biddeford, Leading the Way.
For practical purposes, Biddeford is actually three cities: the aging downtown with its monolithic mills, the University of New England campus four miles to the east, and the wealthy summer enclaves along the Atlantic shore. For many years, these three places have operated in isolation from each other and, as recently as the late 1990s, the coastal area considered seceding from the rest of the City.
The diverse communities are finally collaborating on economic and cultural redevelopment, and today—for the first time in 100 years—Biddeford’s economy is growing. More than one million square feet of mill space is being developed for mixed use, and Biddeford’s designation as a Main Street Maine community has resulted in substantial public and private investment. Vibrant and growing entrepreneurial and artist communities are providing new creative energy.
In 2008, the city of Biddeford and Heart of Biddeford (the local Main Street organization) came together to work on a downtown master planning project, and to do it through a Community Heart & Soul project. Biddeford was selected to be one of the Foundation’s early Heart & Soul™ Community Planning initiatives. As the local partners developed and implemented a Downtown Master Plan, their greatest challenge was improving living conditions and cultural viability without displacing the traditional core of the community.
The project kicked off with a variety of storytelling activities. Three storytelling fellows from the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies gathered community stories as a way to highlight what makes Biddeford unique and a city to celebrate.
Heart & Soul also engaged high school students to gather stories from their family members and peers. Heart & Soul established a presence at traditional community events and captured additional stories through “HeartSpots”, a project where residents phoned a number and to record stories related to specific downtown sites.
The storytelling culminated with a community screening of the storytelling work in October 2009. Approximately 250 people took part in the storytelling phase, from high school students to former mill workers to new downtown business owners. Five Heart & Soul Statements emerged from the many stories:
The project then hosted over 30 neighborhood meetings in different parts of the city to validate the community values and gather people’s concerns and hopes for downtown. Rather than relying on outside expertise, over 35 local facilitators were trained, including high school and University of New England students, to run the meetings. Over 300 people participated in the meetings from all parts of the city. This phase culminated with a citywide forum where about 100 people prioritized seven focus issues to address in the Master Plan:
The project then hosted a series of workshops focused on identifying actions to address the seven issues. Each of these workshops attracted about 30 participants who discussed possible next steps. These workshops culminated in a community-wide forum where about 80 participants used keypad polling to vote on the top actions to pursue. The local Advisory Council solicited additional input on the priority actions and drafted a Downtown Master Plan.
Created in 2005, Heart of Biddeford (HoB) is a non-profit organization dedicated to revitalizing Biddeford as a Main Street community. HoB builds partnerships among Biddeford’s business community, property owners, residents, government, and service organizations, and helps the City’s downtown area become more of a destination. With a diverse board from the local community, Heart of Biddeford is well positioned to help unite the different sectors of Biddeford and build consensus on community development initiatives.
The City of Biddeford is governed by a mayor, city manager, and city council, but many of its activities are carried out or supported by the numerous active groups that operate within the City. Several city departments coordinate closely on development and planning initiatives, including offices of Community Development, Economic Development, Health and Welfare, and Planning.