Congressman Mick Michaud toured the construction site of Front Street Shipyard in Belfast on Tuesday with co-owners J.B. Turner, middle, and Taylor Allen, right.
Congressman Mick Michaud toured the construction site of Front Street Shipyard in Belfast on Tuesday with co-owners J.B. Turner, middle, and Taylor Allen, right.
The city of Belfast has seen its share of lean times, but the long slow growth in the city has suddenly taken off with a sprint. Belfastians gathered and cheered at a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Wednesday morning, June 29, for the 47 businesses that have made a move or added new employees or simply started up in Belfast in the past year. Of those, 28 businesses are brand new, including a new Mexican restaurant, two new bookstores, a barbershop, a new clothing store, an office for marine architects and a new restaurant in the Gothic building on Main Street.

That's good news, especially in the long slog out of the Great Recession. And there's more.

Belfast's Historic Main Street Recognized

On Friday, June 17, Belfast was designated a historic Main Street Maine community by the Maine Downtown Center, making Belfast one of 10 communities in the state that have been recognized as having unique historic downtowns worth revitalizing.

The designation means the Maine Downtown Center will help the community plan, coordinate and implement revitalization efforts.

The Maine Downtown Center, which is part of the Maine Development Foundation, names the city for the year. Belfast will join Bath, Biddeford, Gardiner, Rockland, Saco, Sanford, Skowhegan, Van Buren and Waterville as a Main Street Maine community.

The designation encourages the city and the community to work together towards strategic

revitalization and development of the downtown for the modern age, while retaining the historic character of the district. To do so, Main Street Maine communities use an approach developed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation that is currently used in 44 states in over 1,200 communities.

"Typically, the municipality, the business community and the community at large share the responsibility and provide or raise the money for revitalization," said Belfast City Planner Wayne Marshall.

Instead of one building or one business or event acting alone, the city comes together to create a plan and work together so the entire downtown benefits.

"Take a simple example, the Belfast music in the streets," said Marshall. "That would no longer stand alone but become part of a complete revitalization package."

Our Town Belfast, the downtown-focused nonprofit organization in the city, will receive a variety of resources as a result of the designation, including a multi-year package of training services valued at $30,000.

New shipyard likely to spur other business

The designation and planning effort comes at a good time. The development of the Front Street Shipyard on the city waterfront has the potential to usher in changes to the city as significant as those of MBNA, the credit card company that came to the city in the 1990s and changed it by adding over 2,000 jobs, tearing down derelict buildings and turning them into city parks, and supporting community development efforts.

Front Street Shipyard is owned, in part, by some of the most respected boatbuilders on the Atlantic yachting circuit, including Steve White of Brooklin Boatyard on the other side of Penobscot Bay and Taylor Allen of Rockport Marine. J.B. Turner, former president of Lyman-Morse Boatbuilding in Thomaston, will manage the shipyard, which will employ people in the dozens, not the thousands. However, the shipyard will be the only facility on the coast of Maine able to haul large yachts up to 145 feet long and is likely to attract an affluent yachting crowd that requires not just boat maintenance, but local services, thus opening the way for economic growth in small businesses that include everything from provisioning a galley for high-end clientele to building custom cabinetry and reupholstering boat cushions.

Nation's largest electronic medical company in Belfast

Existing businesses, including Athenahealth, which located in the old MBNA complex three years ago, continue to expand. Athenahealth, the largest electronic health records company in the country, is based in Watertown, Massachusetts, but has 80 percent of its operations in Belfast. Owned by Jonathan Bush, a cousin to the former president, athenahealth is not an insurance company. The company digitizes medical records for doctors, hospitals and other health care providers, processes insurance claims and provides training and troubleshooting on electronic health records software.

Athenahealth employs 350 people, 40 percent of whom give customer service to health care providers. The customer service segment of the company is adding staff as more providers switch to electronic health records. Staff average 1,200 calls and 160 e-services a day, with an average call of eight to 10 minutes.

"Calls come directly to a person and we are in no hurry to get our clients off the phone," said Scott Andrews, the vice president of client services.

Fifteen thousand insurance claims are processed a day and come from 46 different states.

Athenahealth is adding around 12 employees a month and expects to top 400 staff by the end of the year. They'll then begin renovating another part of the former MBNA facility where they're located, as more staff are added.

Dave Tassoni, senior vice president of operations, said the company will continue to add 100 employees a year in Belfast as demand for electronic health records rises.

The company outsources the basic data entry to India, where it employs 1,200 people.

"We are the largest electronic health records provider and are growing 30 percent a year, but only have two percent of the market share," said Tassoni, indicating that there was plenty of room to grow.

Belfast Harbor Walk slated for 2012

A formal footpath along the harbor from the Belfast Boathouse to the Belfast Footbridge is coming closer to reality, according to City Manager Wayne Marshall.

The city has raised $640,000 of the $1.2 million needed to connect the footpath from Steamboat Landing Park to within 200 feet of the footbridge, according to Marshall.

Marshall is submitting a $400,000 grant request to the Communities for Maine's Future bond fund to complete the funding. If that's received, construction will begin in spring of 2012. Future work would finish the path at the Steamboat Landing end and at the entrance to the footpath.

"These are exciting times in Belfast," said Mayor Walter Ash. "It's all good news."