“What’s Bangor’s secret?” a retired gentleman from New Jersey asked my husband and I earlier this week as we chatted over Belgian waffles topped with strawberries and cream.
We paused for a moment considering the right answer.
His question was a valid one upon hearing us brag a bit about how our small city in the middle of Maine had somehow not just survived, but was in many ways thriving during this long and arduous economic downturn.
We were dining at a homey table for six at a bed and breakfast tucked amid the awe-inspiring mountains surrounding Rangeley.
The lakes and the mountains, snowmobiling, skiing, hunting and fishing keep that rural area alive year round.
Its beauty and solitude and the warmth of its people were what brought our breakfast companions to that particular table year after year.
Same with the Massachusetts couple who sat across from us.
“Why do people go to Bangor?” the same fellow asked, as he dipped his small spreading knife into a tiny jar of homemade blueberry jam.
We still were unsure of the answer to his question as we looked at one another for guidance.
There is no huge magnificent lake or mountain directly in our borders, nor the Atlantic Ocean.
We have traditionally been a pit stop as people traveled to those other places.
In March 2009, I wrote a column about the ominous hand-written signs that had popped up on the doors of several of Bangor’s downtown restaurants.
That winter, four-and-a-half years ago, the newly opened restaurant Giacomo’s had unexpectedly closed, as had other restaurants: Opus, J.B. Parker’s, Christopher’s Restaurant and Red Martini Nightclub, Cafe Nouveau, Ichiban and The New Moon Cafe.
Many had a sign on the door indicating they were either closed for good or would be reopening in a few weeks.
Business was slow.
It was a bleak time in downtown Bangor.
This past winter, even in the middle of the week, one could drive through downtown Bangor and see many of its restaurants full and vibrant.
This time of year, most of us locals know which restaurants to avoid on certain evenings because of the number of people waiting for a table.
Stores and restaurants are not only opening, but staying open.
Business appears to be pretty darned good.
So what’s the secret?
Did change start to slowly occur downtown when the Maine Discovery Museum opened its doors in 2001?
Or was it when a determined group of artistic sorts started efforts to bring the National Folk Festival to Bangor’s waterfront in 2002?
Was it when the city finally put some effort into revitalizing the severely lacking riverfront to prepare for the folk festival?
Was it the opening of Hollywood Slots in 2005?
Was it the Waterfront Concert Series, which has pumped $30 million into the local economy since its inception three years ago?
Maybe a combination?
We’re still not sure, but it’s made for decent dinner conversation this week.
In short, I think the change, the secret if you will, is the determination and perseverance of those residents who wanted the changes enough to work for them.
A lot of people in Bangor had a vision or a dream, pursued them and had the ability to bring others on board.
The opening of the Cross Insurance Center will hopefully help Bangor continue down this path.
So what is the secret to Bangor’s success?
I’m guessing we all have our own thoughts about that, but it certainly is nice to have that question asked of you by a nice retired gentleman from New Jersey.
Who knows, maybe he’ll put Bangor on his itinerary next year.