To hear Lori Weston and Jane Torres talk about Houlton, you wonder how anyone can complain about hard times. Weston is the town’s community development director and Torres directs the Chamber of Commerce. They love their town, and they are not alone.
After hearing their presentation at the Nov. 9 Aroostook County Downtown Day sponsored by the Maine Development Foundation in Presque Isle, I decided to visit with them in Houlton to learn more about the events and initiatives that have ignited a positive sense of community in the town.
“When you have to talk about your community you realize how good you are,” Weston said about last month’s presentation, which focused on the events that are drawing people into town. “Keeping people motivated through events cannot be overemphasized. People come home for them.”
Torres added that it takes about three years to establish an event, such as Houlton’s agricultural fair and Midnight Madness shopping extravaganza in July, Potato Feast Days in August and the holiday light parade on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. McGill’s Community Band is featured at most Houlton events, and, this year, planners decided to add lobsters to the potato feast menu.
“I had no idea how many to order, so I ordered 125; they sold out in 45 minutes,” Torres said, describing the scramble to local grocery stores to buy additional lobsters to meet the demand presented by the 800 people who showed up. In addition to celebrating the region’s potato heritage with games and foods, Potato Feast Days include sidewalk sales, an arts and crafts fair and a quilt show attracting Canadians as well as people from around the United States.
Introducing new ideas, such as lobsters, to annual events is one way Houlton keeps people coming back for more. The night of huge sales that is Midnight Madness now features shuttle buses, fireworks and, of course, McGill’s Band. The event drew 4,000 people to town last July.
Houlton is one of four Aroostook County communities included in the Maine Development Foundation’s Downtown Network. Launched in 2009, the network trains communities to build an appropriate organizational and funding base for a comprehensive downtown economic revitalization program.
Madawaska, Presque Isle and Van Buren are also among the 20 Maine communities in the Downtown Network. On average, the communities have 12 engaged volunteers working with modest budgets ($5,000-$50,000) to accomplish improvement projects.
The Downtown Network program operates on a four-point approach that stresses organization, design, promotion and economic restructuring. Organization involves getting everyone working toward the same goal.
Design means getting the main street into top physical shape. Promotion sells a positive image of the commercial district and economic restructuring strengthens and expands the community’s economic assets.
“Houlton was added to the Maine Downtown Network last year and has great potential to become one of northern Maine’s premier downtown destinations,” said Roxanne Eflin, senior program director for the Maine Downtown Center administered by the Maine Development Foundation.
Citing Houlton’s “unique downtown square, stunning architecture [both commercial and residential], county seat government and I-95 location,” Eflin also praised the town’s “passionate, courageous people who believe that revitalizing its historic downtown district is the best investment in their community’s No. 1 asset.”
To qualify for the Downtown Network, communities must possess “a vision and bold leadership plus proven abilities to accomplish projects with ingenuity and attitude.”
“There is no place for negativity,” Weston said. “Once it takes hold, it is hard to reverse and we all lose.”
She described a resident who burst into her office exploding with enthusiasm for an idea that would help the community. “There was no way her idea could not work,” Lori recalled. “I loved it. It was all about attitude.”
Both Weston and Torres say they are “blessed” with local volunteers who are “real workers,” always ready and committed to help. “They are committed for the right reasons,” Weston said, stressing their interest in the community more than personal advancement.
“It’s been a long fight to come back from the Ricker College days,” said Torres, referring to the private school that closed in the 1970s when downtown Houlton had 18 clothing stores. Acceptance of new ideas for development was not automatic.
Some merchants feared they would lose parking spaces in front of their stores when the idea for a downtown farmers market was introduced. But, as the weekly Saturday event evolved from three vendors to 22 farmers and crafters, retailers discovered the traffic into their stores increased.
When construction of a walking bridge across the Meduxnekeag River was proposed, some called it a useless expense — “a bridge to nowhere.”
Today the bridge leads to Riverfront Park and a 0.7-mile walking loop along the river and back through town that brings people together.
Houlton drew the attention of the Maine Development Foundation when the town hosted a Downtown Network conference several years ago. The daylong gathering of participants from around the state included walking tours of historic sites and development projects, while breakout sessions generated cross pollination of ideas among people from various areas.
Today the walking tour of historic Houlton includes 23 sites and people are talking about wanting to live downtown.
“We love Houlton and its potential,” said Eflin, urging the community to get organized, work the plan and rejoice in their success. “Small steps are great steps. Houlton can do this.”
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou 04736.