Downtown Presque Isle was abuzz Friday night, Dec. 7. Merchants on the Corner offered wine and beer tastings. The Reed Gallery at the University of Maine at Presque Isle hosted a reception in honor of six artisans featured in the month’s exhibition of “fine craft of northern Maine.”
Live music spilled into the street when doors opened at the Wintergreen Arts Center, Morning Star Art and Framing and The Whole Potato Cafe and Commons. And dinner hour at Cafe Sorpreso concluded with a slide show presented by UMPI faculty member David Putnam on his recent trip to Bhutan.
Since 2010, downtown Presque Isle has become the place to be on the first Friday of the month, thanks to the First Friday Art Walk. The work of a local artist is featured at each of eight to 10 businesses and nonprofit organizations on and off Main Street. Visitors stroll from place to place, meeting the artists, enjoying refreshments and listening to live music.
“First Friday Art Walks represent the perfect fusion between the art center, the community and the downtown-area merchants,” said Wendy Zubrick, director of the Wintergreen Arts Center. “They provide an opportunity for socialization, entertainment and education, promoting coordination between the various businesses in providing unique opportunities in each venue.”
As examples, Zubrick said Cafe Sorpreso offered an artist-inspired cake for two recent art walks (Pollack and Mondrian) and that prose and poetry readings have been augmented by mimes and street performers, lectures and demonstrations.
“What a showcase for the wealth of creative talent in The County,” Zubrick said.
Last month, people spurred by holiday spirit packed into each of the participating venues.
While musicians played old-time favorites in the back of the store, Morning Star Art and Framing featured artwork by Janet and Harry Murakami of Framed Gardens in Cary Plantation, whose pressed flowers under glass have won awards and been displayed from Maine to Japan.
Merchants on the Corner (of Academy and Main streets) offered four wines from around the world, as well as specialty beers, while Bou’s Brew Pub down the street showcased a multimedia show by musician Kris LeVasseur.
Brian Brissette, Morning Star co-owner, said the monthly art walks “get people out of their vehicles and onto the sidewalks in front of the stores.”
Sometimes they discover places they did not know existed. “Every little thing helps,” he said.
First Friday Art Walks have contributed to Presque Isle’s downtown revitalization program. The city is one of four communities in Aroostook County designated by the Maine Development Foundation as members of the Maine Downtown Network. Along with Houlton, Van Buren and Madawaska, Presque Isle has adopted the four-point model of the National Main Street Center, an approach that stresses organizational leadership, physical improvements and historic preservation, event and image promotion and business development.
Ken Arndt, the city’s director of planning and development, said the relationship with the Maine Development Foundation’s Augusta-based Maine Downtown Center has helped Presque Isle’s volunteer Downtown Revitalization Committee. He cited four initiatives in the city’s plan for the future: construction of a new community center, opening up development parcels for small businesses along Riverside Drive, making Main Street between Church and Academy streets more pedestrian-friendly, and creation of a structure for a downtown farmers market near the courthouse and river.
“I have great hope that the farmers market will spur more shops downtown,” Arndt said. “The big thing to deal with is traffic on Main Street.”
Lighted crosswalks, bump-outs to slow down traffic and alternative routes to divert trucks are under consideration. “I think it’s coming together,” he said, adding that a facade loan program will soon help selected business owners upgrade their facades.
The Whole Potato Cafe and Commons has already created a new facade with a deck on Main Street. Opened in mid-November, the cafe combines the interests of its owner, Carol Ayoob, in art, community and locally grown organic food.
“It’s a gathering place, kind of like the Grange hall in rural communities,” she said in an interview. “I want to use the space for people interested in living in the natural world — people wanting to be engaged in art, dance, music, the farmers market, a community garden. Growing food and being together is natural.”
Ayoob is also working to build “a safe social space for young people and their families,” described on the cafe’s website as “a ‘collaboratory’ where young people and their community can experiment and investigate music, movement, art, poetry, ecology, film and theater.”
As the culmination of her work on a master’s degree in intermedia at the University of Maine in Orono, Ayoob calls her new business “my art practice. Like every artist, I want to make change in the world.”
Those who brave the cold for the First Friday Art Walk on Jan. 4 will find fiber artist David Small at The Whole Potato, a new exhibit titled “Refuge” by Sandra Cyr McLaughlin at the Wintergreen Arts Center, paintings by Bridget Hughes and Matt Austin at Bou’s Brew Pub, “Framed Gardens” at Morning Star and a “delectable cake” at Cafe Sorpreso. Student artwork is on exhibit at UMPI’s Pullen Gallery, and Catholic Charities on Davis Street will feature a mystery artist.
Musicians Mark and Jordyn Shaw will perform at Wintergreen, Peter Parker and the Crew will return to Morning Star, while Keith Ouellette plays at Bou’s and open mic musicians line up to perform at The Whole Potato.
Roxanne Eflin, program director of the Maine Downtown Center, praised Presque Isle business owners for putting time, energy and money into the city’s Main Street. “While the municipality is taking a larger view of downtown development, the private sector has stepped up to the plate and is putting their investment into Main Street. It is the perfect example of public-private partnership that must occur if we are to see vibrancy return to downtown.”
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 email@example.com or P.O. Box 626, Caribou 04736.