Changing Times

Machias turning an economic corner one job at a time.

MACHIAS, Maine — Workers at Whitney's Tool Shed and Tri-Town Marine were bustling this week. New signs were going up, renovations were under way inside the showroom, and product shelves were being installed — all for a grand opening party set for Saturday, May 21.

But just five months ago, owner David Whitney was prepared to close the Tool Shed, which would have lost five people their jobs, something that was breaking his heart. "This has been a Whitney business for generations," he said.

Instead, Whitney felt a tug of loyalty to Machias, a feeling that he said woke him out of a sound sleep one night when he realized that he just couldn't pull his business out of town. Earlier this year, he purchased Tri-Town Marine and moved its operations to his downtown Machias Tool Shed location. To his delight, business is thriving.

And his cash register isn't the only one in town that is singing.

Matt Haschalk, assistant manager at Family Dollar, said, "This is one of the busiest stores in the state." He said a recent company decision to expand the store was rooted in its location on busy Route 1, where there is no big-box competition nearby. "Machias is booming," he said.

Over the past six months, a series of new businesses and expansions in Machias have created at least 30 new nonseasonal jobs — jobs that often are overlooked because they are being created mostly one or two at a time.

The big picture, however, is impressive:

• Whitney's Tool Shed expanded and purchased Tri-Town Marine, representing a net growth locally of nine jobs.

• The French Cellar, a wine and cheese shop, opened on Water Street, creating 1½ jobs.

• La Petite Boutique, a day spa and salon, opened on Colonial Way — five jobs.

• Local artists established a collaborative art gallery on Main Street — one job.

• The Towne Friar Cafe and Bakery was added to Jordan's Gardens — three jobs.

• B & C's Used Furniture opened — 2½ jobs.

• The Dollar Store expanded into the adjoining building space, doubling its floor space — two jobs added.

• Viking Lumber purchased Rhoades Building Products — one new job.

• And a taxi comes to town — at least one new job.

"I am very optimistic," Whitney said. "Every time a new business opens, it gives people another reason to come in to Machias. They may come in for boat repairs, but they could also gas up, grocery shop and eat. I believe in downtown Machias."

In this week's edition of the local newspaper, The Machias Valley Observer, there were advertisements listed for more than 21 jobs.

Machias Town Manager Chris Loughlin said there is a clear shift under way in Machias' business climate. "In some ways, it may be subtle," he said. "This synergy seems to be playing off itself. After two to three really slow years, people are ready to break out, expand and grow."

"I am absolutely encouraged by what I am seeing out there," Harold Clossey, executive director of Sunrise County Economic Council, said this week. "The bottom line is clear: Every job counts."

Clossey said people are finding opportunity in Machias. "We tend to focus on double-digit [job creation], but my experience is the real growth is in the little jobs that are created all the time. We need a diverse mix of employers — large and small."

On Water Street, Elizabeth and Robert French are opening The French Cellar, a wine, cheese and gourmet foods shop, on June 1. "Why Machias?" Robert French said. "Why not? We felt our business would have the greatest chance in the county seat."

On Colonial Way, Valerie St. Louis just opened La Petite Boutique — the sign isn't even on the door yet. Her day spa will not only have five employees within a month but is offering packages with local florists and photographers, boosting their businesses.

Jaime Towne of Towne Friar Cafe and Bakery, which employs two full-time and two part-time workers, recently opened at Jordan's Garden Center, east of the dike. Towne said he selected Machias because of the hospitality of its people, from the town office staff to the other local businesses.

"We tend to always see the 10 percent of the sky that is black cloud, not the 90 percent that is blue sky," he said. "There is blue sky over Machias right now."

Across the street from Towne, Bonnie and Clyde Foss have opened B & C's Used Furniture, and they can't keep up with business. "We picked Machias because of the Route 1 traffic," Clyde Foss said. "It has been amazing. We have done very, very well." The company has one part-time and two full-time employees, and Foss said he will hire another worker soon.

"It is wonderful to see this type of growth happening," Clossey said. "Machias is doing some impressive things."