BANGOR, Maine — Earlier this week, while the mercury continued its spring rise, the Bangor Waterfront seemed to spring to life overnight.
All of a sudden there were groups of pedestrians flooding the path that runs parallel to the Penobscot River from the Joshua Chamberlain Bridge toward Hollywood Slots. Couples and families picnicked on the open space off Railroad Street. Kites and Frisbees are sure to follow.
The Bangor Waterfront is in the midst of a decade-long renaissance from a railroad switching yard to a go-to destination, and the city is finally starting to see the payback of its slow but steady investment.
“The waterfront has become a beloved place,” said Pam Shadley, a design consultant hired by the city to help carry out its master plan. “We’ve been working on this for 10 years or more, but the plan has held up.”
Most of the changes and improvements to the Bangor Waterfront have gone largely unnoticed by the public, but that doesn’t make them any less important.
Although stormwater management infrastructure and cleanup of toxic coal tar from the river were not sexy projects, they were necessary to help pave the way for the next stage in the waterfront redevelopment.
“There are a lot of things that the city had to do to meet state and federal requirements,” said Kerrie Tripp, executive director of the Greater Bangor Convention and Visitors Bureau. “They really had to navigate a lot.”
Tripp and others attended a city meeting this week, during which Shadley briefed members of the City Council’s business and economic development committee on the waterfront progress and what remains to be done.
The next phase, which will include finishing walking trails, grading a new outdoor amphitheater and planting and seeding more grass along the area that extends from Railroad Street to Dutton Street, is expected to begin soon.
“With what’s been going on to date and what’s planned for this spring, that opens up a whole new set of opportunities for visitors,” said Bangor Parks and Recreation Director Tracy Willette, whose department will oversee management of the waterfront park. “It brings new challenges for our department, but it’s exciting.”
Although a significant amount of work is in the books, Shadley said the part that the public will remember for years to come is what hasn’t yet been completed.
“All the finished treatments — the public restrooms, the playground and ‘spray-ground,’ the finished amphitheater, that’s what we have left,” she said. “And that’s what will really set the waterfront apart.”
Those finishing touches are still a couple of years away, and Tripp said the hardest part is being patient.
“Seeing the presentation last night, I was really starting to get anxious,” she said. “But I think the incremental approach has worked. It has really moved forward in a thoughtful way.”
Cary Weston, chair of the business and economic development committee, agreed that to most observers, much of the waterfront looks like a sandpit.
“Once you have that last piece, it’s really going to be a visible jewel,” he said.
Approximately $11 million has been spent on the waterfront since 2000, according to Rod McKay, city economic development director, including the work that is planned for this spring and summer. The remaining work is projected to cost another $3.5 million to $4 million.
The city has committed little taxpayer money to support the waterfront improvements. Most of the total has come from state and federal grants and revenue from Bangor’s downtown tax increment financing district fund.
“We’d love to be able to keep doing a little every year,” McKay said. “We’ve been lucky in securing grants and we hope that continues.”
Weston said it might make sense for the city to consider borrowing the remaining total to finish the project sooner rather than later.
“If we’re going to allocate $300,000 or $400,000 each year from TIF and grant funding anyway, it might be worth it to accelerate the project,” he said.
The other piece that is tied to the waterfront’s rebirth is private development. That has come slowly, McKay said, but he’s hopeful that the steady presence of Hollywood Slots, the prospect of a new arena and civic center and a renovated waterfront park will spur development eventually.
Already, the city has started to alter some of its policies and practices to better facilitate use of the waterfront. Early last year, Bangor adopted a new policy for handling requests from groups that want to use the waterfront for functions. For years, the annual American Folk Festival has set the bar for waterfront events. Other smaller events throughout the season, such as the KahBang Festival last August and the Wheels on the Waterfront car show sponsored by the CVB, have benefited from the space, too.
Beginning in June, the city will rent space along Railroad Street to seasonal food vendors, which Willette hopes will be yet another enticing perk for visitors.
“More and more, we’re starting to see the benefits of all the work that has been done down there,” he said.