PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Sandra Cote, 58, of Presque Isle on Saturday recalled a time when all of her shopping was done downtown.
“When I was growing up, this is where my friends and I came for clothes, school supplies, videos, everything,” she said, standing outside the Braden Theater in downtown Presque Isle. “There was no mall or big chain stores.”
During the 1990s and into the 2000s, the downtown seemed to be forgotten for a time, she said, after the Aroostook Centre Mall came to town and shoppers took their business farther up Main Street.
“Now, I think progress has definitely been made,” she acknowledged. “People see that you can have both a mall and another area of town that has different types of shops. The downtown is alive again.”
During the past few years, officials in Presque Isle have set their sights on the downtown.
After a Downtown Revitalization Committee was formed to generate ideas, changes were soon visible in the area. It started with the establishment of park benches and more flower pots. A giant mural adorning a concrete support wall was created to showcase the city’s educational opportunities in SAD 1, at Northern Maine Community College and the University of Maine at Presque Isle.
More events were scheduled in the downtown, including street fairs and New Year’s Eve celebrations.
At the same time, more businesses started popping up downtown, and last summer, the city unveiled its new logo and slogan “Downtown Presque Isle — Shine On. Good Times.”
Today, there are few empty storefronts downtown, and business owners and shoppers said Saturday they are seeing more life in the area.
Lisa Cray is the owner of Treasure Chest Crafts, a downtown shop that sells beads, yarn, craft supplies and other goods. She has been in business for two years and has been in the downtown for one year.
“You can tell where the Downtown Revitalization Committee has done work,” she said Saturday as she helped customers in her store. “Business is picking up down here.”
Cray said she decided to relocate her business to the downtown because she liked the “uniqueness and feel” of the area.
She feels that foot traffic is picking up downtown and credits the Braden Theater with helping to draw people back into the area.
The theater closed its doors in January 1994 after 43 years in business because of competition from an eight-screen multiplex theater that opened at the mall. That theater closed in 2005, and the Braden reopened in 2008.
“Now that the theater is open, there is more foot traffic down here,” she said. “We also have more restaurants down here. People come and eat and look in your windows.”
Still, Cray said she feels the downtown would thrive even more if it had a well-known store to “pull” more shoppers into the area, such as an Old Navy or L.L. Bean outlet, along with a men’s clothing store.
Brian Brissette owns Morning Star Art and Framing with his wife, Jane Caulfied. The business has been open in the downtown for five years. He agrees that the theater and the new restaurant, Cafe Sorpreso, have helped bring foot traffic to the area.
“People come to eat or watch movies and look in your windows, and it plants a seed in their head,” he said. “Some people see stores that they never even knew were in the downtown.”
Despite the downturn in the economy, Brissette said, business at the store in the last few months is up 10 to 15 percent over the same period last year.
Brissette said he also feels more can be done to better the downtown.
“I think it would help to reroute truck traffic around the downtown,” he said, looking out at Main Street and commenting on the narrowness of the street. He said he has seen people sit in their cars for a few minutes after they parked along Main Street because they were afraid to open their doors against oncoming traffic. “I know some people say it would kill the downtown to reroute truck traffic, but you don’t see many truck drivers parking and shopping down here.”
Several years ago, the state introduced a plan to construct a bypass road around Presque Isle to take traffic away from the downtown, but the idea is controversial. While some people think it would enhance the downtown and make it more inviting for shoppers, others feel rerouting traffic around the downtown area would ad-versely affect downtown businesses.
City Manager Jim Bennett, who was hired to the post earlier this month, said the committee has in mind “finding a way for trucks to move more effectively through the area.”
Bennett said he plans to focus intensively on the downtown during his tenure.
“Unless the City Council tells me differently, one of my primary focuses will be the downtown area,” he said.
“I believe that the Downtown Revitalization Committee has been making great progress, and they are listening to the shop owners and the public about what they would like for the future of the downtown,” he said earlier this week. “At this point, the committee is considering several options for the downtown, including possibly looking at allowing people who own downtown buildings to convert some of the vacant space into apartment space. That way, there would be more foot traffic down there because there would be more people living there.”
Kristin Mitchell, 32, of Easton said Saturday that she often brings her children to the Braden Theater. Since she works in Presque Isle, she often shops in the city on her lunch hour.
“I love the downtown, especially the theater and the [Aroostook Music] store,” she said. “I think they have done a great deal of nice work down here. The only thing I would like to see is it be a little less noisy. It is great to sit out on the benches and talk, but it’s really too noisy to sit here too long. You hear too many screeching tires and Jake brakes.”
Mitchell added that it was good to see fewer empty storefronts.
“There are more shops and they are all selling something different,” she said. “It is great to see.”