It would be insensitive and trite to say that the fire that ravaged downtown Fort Kent presents an opportunity for the town.
Lives have been uprooted and irreplaceable possessions have been lost. The psychological trauma that comes from being at risk of death or grave injury will linger for months or longer. Scarce community resources have and will continue to be tapped. And lots of difficult work, from wading through insurance forms and meeting with adjusters to clearing away debris and finally rebuilding, lies ahead.
But there is an opportunity to inject fresh ideas and new capital and finally, create an improved downtown in Fort Kent. The journey there will mean lots of meetings, discussion, debate, compromise and ultimately, a consensus vision for a revitalized downtown. Insurance settlements and business decisions alone would lead to new buildings. But a broader view of the fire and downtown can lead to a better Fort Kent.
State officials should be sensitive to the process that lies ahead and work with locals to identify appropriate grant and loan sources. Public infrastructure such as improved sidewalks, parking and green space could be joined to the private ventures.
As tragic and devastating as such fires are, they also mark the beginning of new eras in communities. It is, perhaps, a perverse view to take, but from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century, great fires that swept through downtowns in many Maine cities ended up ushering in new brick structures and better organized communities which today are valued as archaeological and quality of life assets.
Concerted efforts to rise from the ashes after more recent fires also have helped redefine Maine downtowns. Milo suffered a terrible fire in September 2008 and Lincoln suffered a similar fate in January 2002.
Milo officials were recognized by the state Department of Economic and Community Development for their commitment to restore the downtown. Grants helped pay to restore parts of the Old Milo Baptist Church, rehabilitate the Veterans Park and help building owners improve downtown facades. The town also upgraded landscaping along downtown streets and reconfigured intersections to highlight views of the Sebec River.
Using its grant funds, Lincoln town officials sought professional assistance to coordinate commercial developers, real estate brokers, architects and planners. Key in its effort was establishing a community committee to guide municipal efforts.
If there is one element that guide these successes, it is planning. And that planning must be comprehensive and coordinated, so the new structures and infrastructure don’t create parking or traffic flow problems, or inhibit business vitality.
Fort Kent seems to have no shortage of community spirit and energy, which are essential components to turning the corner on such tragedies. The owner of the Sears store challenged others in the business community to join him in donating to a fund to help displaced residents get back on their feet. That effort ought to be encouraged while energy is high, though at the same time, residents must accept that it will take years to bring the restoration to fruition.