BANGOR, Maine — Everyone has an idea of what they’d like to see in downtown Bangor.
Alicia Champlin, a downtown resident, wishes the city would issue parking stickers for people who live downtown, so they could leave their cars in parking spaces for more than 90 minutes. She also wants a noodle shop, please.
“My big wish for Bangor is a kickin’ pho restaurant. There is nothing like a good noodle shop,” she said, referring to the Vietnamese noodle soup. “I’d also really love a real-deal farmers market twice a week in the summer.”
“I would love to see an old-fashioned movie theater with inexpensive showings to draw folks downtown every night of the week. A pharmacy or small grocery of sorts would be helpful, too,” said Holly Barber, another downtown resident. “I know there are many people collaborating to bring more cultural events to downtown and the arts are exploding. I think folks are on the right track.”
Visual artist Liz Grandmaison, who has a studio in the 9 Central St. building, longs for more live music.
“Wouldn’t it be amazing to have a jazz or blues club? Something that really was catered just to live music?” said Grandmaison. “I think that is seriously missing from downtown.”
Great strides have been made in the reinvention of downtown, including new cultural magnets such as the University of Maine Museum of Art and the Maine Discovery Museum and a wealth of new businesses in once-empty storefronts, but sustaining those successes and creating new ones are challenges area people want to see met.
‘This is my neighborhood’
Being able to walk to a downtown destination is crucial to maintaining the vitality of the area, and housing is essential to creating walkable neighborhoods.
According to figures provided by the economic development department of the city of Bangor, in the past 20 years, available housing in the downtown district has increased by nearly 50 percent, from 332 units in 1990 to 492 in 2006.
“There are just under 500 units downtown right now. When we started in the ’80s, there were practically none,” said Rod McKay, Bangor’s economic development director. “No one lived downtown. The city actively courted investors and developers, who would re-purpose buildings like the Freese building and the Standard Shoe building into housing. And that’s what happened. The reason downtown is so vibrant now is precisely because of its live-in population.”
The city of Bangor defines the downtown district as stretching from Interstate 395 and the Bangor Waterfront in the west to Broadway in the east with a border that snakes along First Street, High Street and across Kenduskeag Stream to the corner of Cumberland and Harlow streets.
Of the 492 apartments available within the downtown, 194 are occupied by the elderly and people with disabilities. Eighty-six are condominiums owned by tenants, and the remainder are rentals.
Holly Barber, 27, lives right in the thick of it — downtown Main Street. She works in the Bucksport school system by day and runs her own photography studio, Hocus Focus, out of her apartment.
“I lived in downtown years ago and really enjoyed the atmosphere. It has grown even more since then, so when the opportunity to move back downtown arose, I jumped at it,” she said. “Being a part of downtown is being a part of a unique community. It’s a neighborhood like any other, sprinkled with a variety of characters.”
Others live on the fringes —for more affordable rent or more convenient parking — so that they can be closer to downtown.
Kimberley Alberding moved from an apartment on Center Street to one on Third Street that she shares with her friends Emily Pappas and Johannah Beck.
“When we moved from Center Street to our place right now, we definitely did it with being closer to downtown in mind,” said Alberding, 24, who regularly visits Giacomo’s, Paddy Murphy’s and the Tha1 Lounge. “I know it’s not technically downtown, but we’re not even a 10-minute walk from everything. Living right down-town is too expensive. It’s hard to find a place. There’s no parking. And I don’t mind walking.”
Alberding, Pappas and Beck, like many others who live in the lower west side neighborhood from Fifth Street to the river and in the east side neighborhoods branching off State Street and Broadway, are just as much a part of downtown life as those who live in the apartments on Main and Columbia streets.
“If you were to create housing right in downtown for even, say, 50 people, it would instantly create a population that would be even more inclined to walk around, shop, create and work,” said City Councilor Cary Weston. “The more people there are here, the more it grows. People want to walk. People want to ride their bikes. And we do very little to help them.”
Second- and third-floor spaces remain empty throughout downtown. Main Street in particular has unoccupied spaces that have not been used for housing.
“I think accessing those second- and third-floor parts of buildings is a large part of it,” said Mike Aube, president and CEO of Eastern Maine Development Corp. “The challenge with that is accessing those parts of buildings in a way that’s economical and sustainable. The cost of making those accessible can be very costly. Put-ting in an elevator is an incredibly expensive undertaking, but if you can’t do that, it limits who can live there.”
Despite the limitations and the costs, people want to live downtown.
“The best part is — I hate to say it — the ‘scene,’” said Alicia Champlin, who lives on Main Street with her husband Bill. “I like knowing people wherever I go. I like being able to have a few drinks and walk home. I like being able to go out and feel like ‘this is my neighborhood, and stuff happens here.’”
Filling in the spaces
While the number of empty storefronts has declined over the past decade, unoccupied commercial spaces remain.
As the owner of the Grasshopper Shop, a downtown business anchor for more than 20 years, Rich Schweikert has seen stores come and go. But the atmosphere in the area now is as vital as he has ever seen it — making it a perfect time for new businesses to move in.
“I think people are getting into that entrepreneurial spirit and are willing to take that risk to start something up,” said Schweikert. “If landlords can make spaces available and affordable, I think we’ll see even more people coming in. I think there’s a new generation taking foot in Bangor, and they’re really infusing the place with a new kind of youthful energy. It’s getting hip. There’s more life coming in.”
Shirar Patterson, Bangor’s downtown coordinator, hopes to see more businesses moving into empty spaces on Exchange, Main, Central and other streets.
“I’d love to see some sort of large retail business in the old Bangor Hydro building on Exchange Street,” she said. “There’s so much traffic flowing by, and it’s empty. We need more creative people with creative ideas to re-purpose old buildings. There are so many great spaces downtown just waiting to be filled.”
Other empty buildings include the old Dakin Sporting Goods Co. building on Broad Street and the old Sears building at 77 Central St., which recently housed Ofelia’s Arte Fino Gallery and the temporary campaign headquarters for the Maine Democratic Party. Charles Fitzgerald owns both buildings, as he did Norumbega Hall and the Freese’s Building.
Fitzgerald, who does not live in Maine and was not available for comment, has allowed his properties to sit vacant for years. Both buildings are priced high, and both require extensive renovations to bring them up to code.
Until Fitzgerald lowers the price or a developer ponies up the cash to buy either of the two buildings, the city remains unable to do anything about them, according to economic development director Rod McKay.
“Believe me, we’d bend over backwards to help out a developer who wanted to purchase either of those properties,” said McKay. “It’s not for lack of trying that they’re empty. It’s just hard to fill them when they’re so expensive, and something like taking it by eminent domain is an extremely costly and difficult process.”
Nevertheless, City Councilor Cary Weston is excited about the possibility of a new educational and business development moving into 77 Central St. The Target Technology Center, a nonprofit organization based in Orono, hopes to purchase the building someday to transform it into a new-media focused entrepreneurial incubator.
“Basically, it would be a combination of studio and office space. It would be a factory for small businesses and creative professionals to get their ideas from just ideas to real, working businesses,” said Weston. “It would have a full new media resource center for filmmakers and web designers and creative professionals to utilize. It’s a training ground.”
The proposed new-media center could become a reality in the next few years, though many more financial hurdles must be overcome before that happens.
“Bangor is a prime city in which to have something like this, since it’s got all the resources of a much larger city, and it’s got this huge pool of college students,” said Weston. “If we can help those students to make their ideas a reality right here in Bangor, they’re more likely to stick around here in Bangor for the long haul. And those are exactly the kinds of people we want to be a permanent part of our community.”
A ‘totally livable’ district
Green spaces make a place more inviting and more livable. While three parks lie within the downtown area — Davenport Park on Cedar Street, the grassy areas on Norumbega Parkway, and the Esteban Gomez Memorial where the Kenduskeag Stream meets the Penobscot — the Bangor Waterfront project, set into motion 25 years ago, will add to downtown 10 acres of green lawn, new facilities for events and even better access to the Penobscot River.
“It will certainly transform the rest of the downtown area once it’s done,” said Rod McKay.
A bike path, a seasonal ice-skating rink, picnic tables and an outdoor amphitheater for concerts and other events, such as the American Folk Festival, are some of the projects envisioned. Even though proposals for commercial development and condominiums have failed to get off the ground, construction continues. McKay esti-mates the Riverfront Park will be done within the next year or two. New businesses and residential buildings will come later — or so he hopes.
While the waterfront park is under construction, however, open spaces now in use need fixing up. West Market Square, the hub of much downtown activity, from the West Market Festival in June to Oktoberfest, has benches in disrepair and a peeling signpost with an outdated map of downtown.
Shirar Patterson thinks West Market Square could be transformed into a more user-friendly open space better equipped for the many events held there each year.
“I think West Market Square needs to be updated,” said Patterson. “A lot of people want to use that area for different events. We do have other areas, like Pickering Square, but West Market is more central to businesses and gives them more exposure. It could be more open and usable for different things.”
Others favor closing off Broad Street to traffic completely and making West Market Square a grass-covered pedestrian park. Though this would cause issues with fire and rescue access and for delivery trucks, it’s something that some city officials and business owners would welcome.
“I’d be a fan of closing the square off to traffic altogether,” said Cary Weston. “Reroute traffic and make it pedestrian-only.”
“Can you imagine if West Market Square was closed off, completely renovated, and was full of grass and trees instead of cement?” said John Dobbs, owner of Paddy Murphy’s Pub adjacent to West Market Square. “You could walk your dog or go barefoot. Businesses could have outside seating. It would be totally livable. I know that’s something I’d like to see happen in the next decade.”
As downtown changes, in the end, it improves what’s already there: an old, quirky, slightly shabby but still elegant city full of history, beautiful buildings, a long tradition of inimitable characters and a population proud of its identity.
The Bangor Historical Society has more than 10,000 items in its collection. Aside from the few hours the Thomas H. Hill Museum on Union Street is open and the summer and fall walking tours, the collection and the rich history it illustrates may still be looking for a permanent home.
Five years ago Bill and Sally Arata gave the Historical Society the building at 25 Broad St. Unfortunately, the cost of renovating the building to use as a museum may be excessive and plans are on hold, according to EMDC’s Mike Aube, the chairman of the Bangor Museum and Center for History.
“I know more about the history of Bangor from reading Wikipedia than I do from the Bangor Historical Society,” said Jira Rustana, 22, who opened the Tha1 Lounge last summer. “I think it’s awful that they just languish there in that big building with no money and no one to help them. Bangor has such a fascinating history, and there’s no permanent platform to show it off from. That is a shame.”
Were Bangor to use what it already has, for the benefit of both its residents and its visitors, the results could ripple throughout many sectors of the city.
“Why isn’t the Standpipe open more often? Why is it only open four days a year? It’s the most iconic thing in the city, and no one gets to use it,” said Bangor resident Tony Sohns, 31. “Why doesn’t Bangor have the biggest Halloween celebration in the state? We have the Stephen King connection and all his millions of fans. Why don’t we use all this stuff?”
“Bangor could be a European-style city with the canals and the history it has,” said Downtown Bangor Art Walk organizer Joshua Plourde. “I don’t think many of the people who live here even realize what a fascinating history and what a cool town Bangor is. And I don’t think anyone has really capitalized on that.”
Plourde, a 19-year-old University of Maine civil engineering student, couldn’t wait to move to Bangor upon graduating from Mattanawcook Academy in Lincoln last spring.
“I have fallen in love with downtown Bangor,” said Plourde. “I love the square. I love eating at Thai Siam. I love Penobscot Theatre. I love the Kenduskeag. So I had to move here and get involved. That’s what I do.”
For a city of 33,000, Bangor has more than its fair share of resources.
“For me, it’s the fact that Bangor has a lot of the things a normal city has — movie theaters, live theater, trails, a good hospital, good schools — but it has a certain level of authenticity that other places don’t,” said Bangor native and state Rep. Adam Goode. “When people ask me, ‘Why do you live in Bangor?’ I say there are lots of reasons, but what I really love is that if you walk down the street, you can say hello to a stranger, and it’s not weird. You can’t do that in a huge city. You can’t do that even in Portland.”
To many, it seems only a matter of time before it will be hard to picture a boarded-up, empty downtown devoid of life.
“[Bangor is] going to explode,” said Laura Albin, co-owner of the Fiddlehead Restaurant on Hammond Street. “I’m glad I opened my business now, as opposed to later, when I would have to fight to compete. In 10 years, you’ll be glad you were here in 2010, just to have been able to watch the change.”