During the past two years, travelers have faced a snarl of traffic and confusion while driving the coastal stretch of U.S. Route 1 in Thomaston, which doubles as the town’s Main Street and commercial downtown, because of a major Maine Department of Transportation project.
“The loyal customers that I had who loved the [artwork] and loved to visit just didn’t want to endure the process of fighting the construction. […] We were open this past summer and it was my worst summer season,” Gary Haynes, who ultimately closed his art gallery on Main Street because of the construction, said.
But as some businesses have left, several new ones — including a clothing store and an antique bookstore — have opened in recent months, hoping to capitalize on the potential they believe Thomaston has as the construction project is slated to wind down this spring.
In addition to the new businesses on Main Street, nonprofit group formed to help facilitate revitalization. Main Street Matters formed last summer and aims to be a driving force in coordinating communication between businesses and the community, as well as spearheading projects such as improved signage and downtown activities
“There is a great opportunity here,” Andrew Josephs, a business owner and co-founder of Main Street Matters, said. “On the one hand, there is the construction, which caused a great deal of trauma and redirection of traffic. People were not really interested in driving through Thomaston. But now, that is wrapping up by and large, and Thomaston is waking up. We are rediscovering Thomaston.”
Coming out of construction ‘trauma’
The construction is on a winter hiatus as of Dec. 16. It will pick back up once weather permits in the spring, with the project wrapping up in its entirety in May or June, according to Maine Department of Transportation spokesman Ted Talbot.
The $8.7 million Thomaston Route 1 construction project began in April 2016, focusing on improving the safety and structural capacity of 2.2 miles of roadway on the Route 1 corridor, according to Talbot. The project has rebuilt the section of roadway to current highway standards, while improving pavement conditions, drainage and driver and pedestrian safety.
But with a major construction project taking place in the heart of Thomaston, the construction — while needed — consumed the small town of just under 3,000 people.
“Thomaston was a good place to be in the early part of the decade, but [construction] became a barrier to all the businesses — not just mine. The whole complexion of the community changed,” Haynes said.
Construction has been a part of the town’s daily life since the start of the project, with residents having to stay up to date on how many lanes of traffic were open on a given day and thinking about the best ways to avoid the construction. Thomaston Grocery, which celebrated it’s 25th year in business this summer, even made T-shirts about the construction project that said “I found Thomaston Grocery” surrounded by traffic and construction symbols. Proceeds from these shirts were donated to the Thomaston Food Pantry.
Even after the project comes to a close, there are concerns the memories of enduring two summers worth of construction traffic will linger in people’s minds when considering a trip to or around Thomaston.
“I’m just afraid that from a pure habit standpoint, it’s going to take some time for people to come back through Thomaston,” Haynes said.
But the new downtown group and business owners aren’t waiting around to see if that’s the case. They’re trying to bring some vibrancy back to their downtown as soon as possible and are hoping it sticks.
“[New businesses] are basically saying, we don’t need to wait until the spring, get things going now and then when spring comes there will be a dramatic increase in traffic,” Josephs said. “The highway looks great, there is a lot of opportunity here. There are still a fair number unoccupied spaces, but things are filling up.”
A unique identity
In November alone, three ribbon cutting ceremonies were held to welcome new businesses to Main Street, with two more slated for the new year.
Thomaston Cafe, one of the few restaurants in the downtown area, has reopened under new ownership. Across the street from Thomaston Cafe, an antiquarian bookshop, Sandra L. Hoekstra Bookseller, has set up shop in the downtown block’s bright red corner building. And a few doors down, a new consignment shop, Indigo, has moved into the space formerly occupied by the Highlands Coffee House, which abruptly closed last year.
Around the new year, Josephs and another Main Street Matters co-founder, Shirley Barlow, will be opening a two-for-one coffee shop and gift shop in the storefront that previously was Chamber’s Jewelers. Josephs and his wife will be running the gift shop, Moondance Art and Gifts. Barlow will be running the coffee shop, Thyme for Talk, which she hopes fills the void left by Highlands’ closure.
For members of Main Street Matters, having a variety of businesses in the downtown area is essential to maintaining a vibrant community in Thomaston. Co-founder Davene Fahy has lived in Thomaston for 33 years. She remembers when she first moved here, Main Street boasted two grocers, two bookstores and a hardware store. While she doesn’t expect that those businesses will be making a comeback to downtown, Fahy and fellow Main Street Matters co-founders believe that Thomaston’s quaint Main Street corridor would do great in supporting a mix of shops and restaurants.
With Thomaston being located just south of the larger midcoast city of Rockland — popular for its art scene and large summer festivals — Maine Street Matters doesn’t want Thomaston to compete with its neighboring communities but rather be a part of the regional draw that together they offer.
“We are part of a region that has many interesting things going on,” Josephs said. “Thomaston can be a part of that without losing its own identity.”
When Sandra Hoekstra decided she wanted to finally open a brick-and-mortar antiquarian book and print shop, she was looking for storefronts in Rockland and Thomaston. She ultimately settled on a shop in Thomaston because “it was quiet enough yet it was right on Route 1.”
While the construction project may have temporarily interrupted the “quiet” aspect that Hoekstra was drawn to, the town’s historic nature and prime location for a specialty shop like hers is giving Hoekstra a reason to commit to Main Street Thomaston.
“Two full summers is pretty extensive,” Hoekstra said. “But when it’s done, it’s done, and it will stay done.”
Once the construction project is completed, the improved sidewalks and crosswalk areas will make Main Street Thomaston more pedestrian friendly, which will hopefully help downtown businesses. These Route 1 improvements have been planned for years, according to Thomaston Town Manager Val Blastow, piggybacking on another project completed in the early 2000s that made improvements to Main Street’s largest business block.
“I believe that this is going to have a big impact visually for the community that will assist in bringing growth,” Blastow said.
Furthermore, the town is in the planning stages of moving the town office and the police department out of a building on Main Street to the fromer Lura Libby School just behind Main Street. The move would free up several storefront spaces on Main Street that are occupied by municipal offices.
There are still a few empty storefronts left on Main Street as winter sets in this year. But with the end of construction in sight, and new businesses settling in, advocates of downtown Thomaston are hopeful 2018 is the year of rediscovering Main Street.
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