AUGUSTA — When Tracey Taylor opened her business in mid-April on Water Street in Augusta, the global COVID-19 pandemic was more than a year old.
Taylor, owner of the Best Life Nutrition smoothie and juice bar, was among the first of more than a dozen people to open, expand or relocate a business to downtown Augusta in 2021, making it a record year for small business growth on Water Street, despite the harsh economic conditions wrought by the pandemic.
In a year when record numbers of people decided to leave their jobs, the small business boom on Water Street might explain where some of those people went.
For Taylor, 46, several considerations went into the decision to go from employed to self-employed. For 25 years, she worked for a pharmacy, first in purchasing, then as director of sales to long-term care facilities in Maine and New Hampshire.
When the pandemic halted 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 educating them. At about the same time, the son of close family friends, who was the same age as her own son, died of cancer.
“If I am going to change my course, am I going to do it now or 10 years from now? What is another 10 years going to do but make me 10 years older?” she said.
So she made the move, opening her shop at 271 Water St.
During the year, other businesses, such as the 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. expanded.
“It’s been decades since the area has seen this much growth,” said Michael Hall, executive director of the Augusta Downtown Alliance, an organization dedicated to building a thriving downtown.
“Businesses are waking up to a downtown that is drastically different from the downtown of a decade ago. With food and vehicular traffic up both day and night, and tourists wandering the streets in summer and fall, it’s little wonder why it’s become such a destination for small business owners.”
Part of that is due to the number of people who live in downtown Augusta.
After years of working on recruiting businesses to downtown Augusta, the focus has shifted to recruiting people to live there. Over the past decade, buildings that had stood vacant for years have been undergoing redevelopment into residential spaces on the upper floors, with retail or business spaces on the ground floor.
“I’ve been involved in a lot of different committees talking about the downtown of Augusta and how to revitalize it,” said Andrew Silsby, president and chief executive officer of Kennebec Savings Bank.
He noted the 100 apartments that have been created are all occupied, and landlords have waiting lists.
While that investment has drawn people to Water Street who are potential customers for those businesses, that does not fully explain the business boom.
Silsby said one of the factors that could be contributing to it is the Great Resignation, a national economic trend where tens of thousands of American employees are quitting their jobs at historic rates.
While it is not immediately clear what all of the people who have walked away from regular employment are doing, Silsby said some are starting businesses.
“We are creeping up on our second anniversary of the pandemic, and it’s caused a lot of people rethink their lives,” Silsby said. “I believe the governmental numbers are not capturing new businesses created.”
Even at Kennebec Savings Bank, Silsby said, the bank has lost more employees than it ever has before. Through September, the bank had lost 14 people, with only two of them going to other banks.
Data collected by federal and state governments does not capture information on people starting their own businesses until months after the fact, especially if those businesses do not require licenses or other permits.
“They want to be their own boss, do marketing or social media from their homes or open a coffee shop,” Silsby said of those leaving the workforce.
And while the COVID-19 pandemic has injected much uncertainty into the economy, it has also created a situation in which employees are in great demand. If people opt to take the risk to start a business and it misfires, chances are good they could easily find another job.
For Taylor, her background in sales and marketing made the transition to owning her own business a bit easier. She opened Best Life Nutrition in Augusta after looking around the region for possible locations. She briefly considered Wiscasset, but zeroed in on downtown Augusta, because she had heard about revitalization efforts that included opening Water Street to two-way traffic.
Augusta was also attractive, she said, because it is only a 15-minute drive from her house in Whitefield.
Operating during a pandemic has not been an impediment to her business.
“It’s very much a pick-up-and-go environment,” she said.
While Taylor has a couple of tables and chairs in her 845-square-foot shop, patrons can easily take their drinks to go or pick them up curbside, and that was a consideration.
“Businesses like mine stayed open,” she said. “It wasn’t as big of a concern for me as being a small business owner and giving up things, like benefits and vacation time and all of those creature comforts of being an adult. That was a little more concerning for me than the business itself.”
While Taylor has a steady draw of customers, she said she looks forward to the end of the pandemic, when workers at downtown offices will return.
“So many exciting things are happening,” she said, “and once people start coming back, (downtown Augusta) has so much promise that ideally this is where I want to be. It was all kind of meant to be.”