February 23, 2018
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Bangor’s downtown renaissance

Brian Swartz | BDN
Brian Swartz | BDN
Taking advantage of Plaid Friday sales at Valentine Footwear on Main Street in Bangor, Morgan Cashwell (center) of Linthicum, Md. checks out a Born Sabrina black comfort pump while talking with store employees Emily Hanna (left) and Meg Gipson in late November.
By David M. Fitzpatrick, BDN Maine Special Sections

When the Bangor Mall opened in 1978, Bangor’s downtown seemed doomed. The next few decades saw a decrease interest in the downtown; businesses came and went, and store fronts remained empty.
But a few years ago, the tide seemed to finally turn for good. Now, most store fronts are occupied and apparently stable. And 2013 seemed to be something of a turning point for downtown in many respects.

“There’s no turning back now,” said Jason Bird, a business development officer for the city who also serves as the downtown coordinator through a collaboration with the nonprofit Downtown Bangor Partnership.

Downtown is defined by the Downtown Development District, which runs from Interstate 395 to the Penobscot Bridge and up to Cumberland and Hammond Streets and looks like a gerrymandered political map. District businesses pay taxes to fund the Downtown Bangor Partnership and enjoy the benefits of the DBP’s marketing efforts, which will soon begin targeting shoppers across Maine and into Canada.

But downtown is more than just its businesses. For example, the city will soon focus on plans for Pickering Square, long considered a often unwelcome community spot.

“What we ideally want to see is people utilizing the space more often,” Bird said. “Early ideas have us adding green space and having fewer pavers. We want the space to be more inviting and more welcoming to families and visitors.”

This will also involve reevaluating the city bus system, which has its main hub at the Pickering Square parking garage. The current system was built for a ridership of about 250,000 rides per year, but the system currently serves a million rides.

With more people, buses, and traffic, safety issues have emerged at the hub, so a new plan will address everything from safety and efficiency to utility and aesthetics. The city will review recommendations through 2014 and will likely move forward with redesign efforts in 2015.

For those who feel downtown parking is a problem, it really isn’t. There are adequate on-street spaces and an average of 200 spaces at the parking garage at any time. You might not be able to park in front of your destination shop, but walking a few hundred feet is a simple way to see more of downtown.

“People should take a walk around,” Bird said. “You’ll be amazed what you’ll find.”

While you’re walking, consider the businesses you don’t notice from the street. The upper floors attract downtown patrons to businesses that have often been there for years, such as lawyers, accountants, artists, and repair shops.

“There’s a whole host of the service sector employers that are very good-paying jobs that add to the vitality of downtown,” Bird said. “Filling the second and third and fourth floors are now a priority for us — not only for the Downtown Bangor Partnership, but the city of Bangor — in the next couple of years.”

There’s more in the works, including the ongoing waterfront work; ambitious plans for the adjacent area of First through Third Street to improve lighting, sidewalks, public spaces, and residences; and Main Street development to improve roads, pedestrian safety, and tourist appeal.

Bird referred to comments made by City Councilor Ben Sprague during Sprague’s appointment as council chair on Nov. 13.

“There are plenty of reasons for optimism,” Sprague said at the meeting. “That said, it is time for us as a community to stop saying ‘Haven’t we come so far?’ and instead start saying, ‘What do we want to become?’”

For Bird, that said it all.

“That, I think, really encapsulates where we are, as an entire city, and not just downtown,” Bird said. “With the city’s ongoing investments and the private-sector growth that we will continue to see, the sky is the limit for Bangor. If 2014 is anything like 2103, I’m excited for what’s to come.”

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