The town of Hampden has been trying to, in a way, find its center for the past seven months.
Since last summer, a consultant has been working with local officials, residents and business owners to determine how a certain stretch of town can be made into a more inviting downtown — a town center.
That area mostly runs parallel to the Penobscot River, following Main Road between Kennebec Road and Western Avenue, then branching out along Western Avenue past the intersection with U.S. Route 202. It includes a mix of neighborhoods, restaurants, larger stores such as Hannaford, smaller stores including Hampden Hardware and local institutions such as Hampden Academy and the Lura Hoit Pool.
Long ago, the area was made up of multiple, self-sufficient village centers. When people couldn’t walk where they were going, they used horses or, later on, the area’s electric trolley system with a line that ran down Main Road from Bangor.
But over the past century, the growth of commercial activity in neighboring Bangor and the dawn of the personal automobile have made Hampden ill-suited to pedestrian activity and more of a bedroom community. Zoning rules have encouraged more space between buildings. Parking lots have been increasingly placed at the fronts of businesses, while there has been dwindling space for the community to gather.
“Hampden doesn’t have a definable town center,” Town Planner Karen Cullen, who has been helping to organize the Hampden Town Center project, said.
The project’s goal is to make that central area of town more appealing and accessible to residents while also creating the conditions that may attract more businesses and residents.
A final report will be presented to the Town Council on March 18. It can be viewed in draft form on the town’s website, where it’s included in minutes from a Feb. 6 meeting of the town’s Planning and Development Committee.
The town is paying for the project with about $15,000 in funds raised from a tax increment financing district and reserved for economic development purposes, according to Cullen.
“From what people have discussed, what they would like to see is almost a quintessential town center with little shops and nice walkable areas, with sidewalks and trees and public spaces and nice parks tucked in along the way,” Cullen said.
But getting there will also take a lot of willpower, cooperation and funding, according to Cullen. The challenge of converting that area into something like a classic New England village, she said, is that it’s “at such odds with quite a bit of the development pattern that has taken place over the last 100 years.”
Now, the people leading the Town Center initiative are close to finishing their plan for how the town of 7,500 people can move forward.
The consultant, from the firm North Star Planning in North Yarmouth, is completing a report that runs more than 60 pages and includes a set of short- and long-term recommendations. He has written the report after holding three public meetings in the town and circulating an online survey that received more than 100 responses, according to Cullen.
One of the questions residents were asked was, what do they see as the center of Hampden? But trying to answer that question was difficult, Cullen said, because multiple types of development exist in the area between Western Avenue and Kennebec Road.
Among the recommendations are that the town establish a community gathering space; develop walking trails; install signs that designate areas as part of the town center; and use an upcoming project to improve the intersection of Main Road and Western Avenue as an opportunity to add more trees, sidewalks and pedestrian crossings.
The report also urges zoning changes that would allow smaller lots and denser development, require that parking not be allowed between buildings and the street, and “[r]aise the bar on design requirements for new construction.”
However, the report recognizes that cooperation will be required for such an effort and urges a group of volunteers to spearhead the changes and look for funding sources, including grants.
It also recommends that the town work with other parties that control much of the funding and decision-making for developments in that area, such as Regional School Unit 22, the Maine Department of Transportation and Daniel Lafayette, the owner of the Old Hampden Academy on Main Road.
“In order for it to be successfully implemented in whole or in part, it will take a group of people making dedicated efforts,” Cullen said. “They should be people heavily invested in town — I don’t mean financially invested, I mean more personally invested — to come together and form a committee.”