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Small Businesses Embrace Downtown Augusta During COVID-19 Pandemic

AUGUSTA – When Tracey Taylor opened her business in mid-April on Water Street in Augusta, the global COVID-19 pandemic was over a year old.

Tracey Taylor stands behind the counter on Friday at her Best Life Nutrition business in downtown Augusta. Joe Phelan / Journal Kennebec

Taylor, owner of Best Life Nutrition Juice and Smoothie Bar, was among the first of more than a dozen people to open, expand or relocate a business in downtown Augusta in 2021, making it a year record for the growth of small businesses on Water Street, despite the difficult economic conditions brought about by the pandemic.

In a year when record numbers of people have decided to quit their jobs, the small business boom on Water Street could explain where some of those people have gone.

For Taylor, 46, several considerations entered into the decision to move from employee to self-employed. For 25 years, she worked for a pharmacy, first in purchasing, then as sales manager for long-term care facilities in Maine and New Hampshire.

When the pandemic interrupted visits to nursing homes, assisted living centers and group homes, it took away one of the things she loved most about her job – building relationships with clients and educate them. Around the same time, the son of close family friends, who was the same age as his own son, died of cancer.

“If I have to change course, will I do it now or in 10 years? What will 10 more years do but 10 more years do me? she said.

So she took the plunge by opening her store at 271 Water St.

During the year, other businesses, such as Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance, Saylorink Tattoo, The Perfect Circle Cheesecakery, Lilac on the River, and T and K Tactical, all opened in downtown Augusta. , and Pouliot Real Estate and Water Street Barber Co. extended.

“It has been decades since the region has experienced such growth,” said Michael Hall, executive director of the Augusta Downtown Alliance, an organization dedicated to building a thriving downtown area.

“Businesses are realizing that the city center is radically different from that of ten years ago. With food and vehicles flowing day and night, and tourists roaming the streets in summer and fall, it’s no wonder it has become such a destination for small business owners.

This is in part due to the number of people who live in downtown Augusta.

After years of working on recruiting businesses in downtown Augusta, the focus has shifted to recruiting people to live there. In the last decade, buildings vacant for years have been redeveloped into residential spaces on the upper floors, with commercial or commercial spaces on the ground floor.

“I’ve been on many different committees to discuss downtown Augusta and how to revitalize it,” said Andrew Silsby, President and CEO of Kennebec Savings Bank.

He noted that the 100 apartments that have been created are all occupied and that the owners have waiting lists.

While this investment has drawn people to Water Street who are potential clients for these companies, it does not fully explain the business boom.

Silsby said one of the factors that could be contributing is the Great Resignation, a national economic trend where tens of thousands of American employees are leaving their jobs at an historic rate.

While it’s not immediately clear what all of the people who quit their regular jobs are doing, Silsby said some are starting businesses.

“We are approaching the second anniversary of the pandemic, and it has caused a lot of people to rethink their lives,” Silsby said. “I think the government numbers do not capture the new businesses created.”

Even at the Kennebec Savings Bank, Silsby said, the bank has lost more employees than ever. Until September, the bank had lost 14 people, only two of whom went to other banks.

Data collected by federal and state governments does not capture information about people who start their own businesses until months after the fact, especially if those businesses do not need licenses or other permits.

“They want to be their own boss, do marketing or social media from home or open a cafe,” Silsby said of those leaving the workforce.

And while the COVID-19 pandemic has injected a lot of uncertainty into the economy, it has also created a situation where employees are in high demand. If people choose to take the risk of starting a business and it fails, chances are they can easily find another job.

Emilee Morgan pours layers of ingredients on Friday while making a Kennebec Sunrise at Best Life Nutrition in downtown Augusta. Joe Phelan / Journal Kennebec

For Taylor, his background in sales and marketing made the transition to starting his own business a breeze. She opened Best Life Nutrition in Augusta after researching the area for possible locations. She briefly considered Wiscasset, but focused on downtown Augusta, as she had heard of revitalization efforts that included opening Water Street to two-way traffic.

Augusta was also attractive, she said, as she is only a 15-minute drive from her home in Whitefield.

Operating during a pandemic hasn’t been a hindrance to his business.

“It’s really a pick-up and go environment,” she said.

The Best Life Nutrition sign in downtown Augusta. Joe Phelan / Journal Kennebec

While Taylor has a few tables and chairs in her 845-square-foot boutique, customers can easily grab their drinks to go or pick them up from the curb, and that was a consideration.

“Businesses like mine have remained open,” she said. “It wasn’t as much of a concern for me as being a small business owner and giving up things like benefits, vacations, and all the comforts of being an adult. It was a bit more of a concern to me than the company itself.

Although Taylor has a constant number of clients, she said she looks forward to the end of the pandemic, when downtown office workers return.

“So many exciting things are happening,” she said, “and once people start to come back, (downtown Augusta) has so much promise that ideally this is where I want to be. It was all meant to be.

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