A thriving downtown will thrum with life from dawn to dusk. A mix of long-time residents, newcomers and tourists will line the streets, whether they are shopping, dining or just enjoying a day in the park. The buildings will be well-kept, and the storefront windows will be filled with unique displays from a variety of businesses, from grocers to gift shops.
Lately, downtown Bucksport looks a lot like this idealized picture of a downtown, but it wasn’t always that way.
In 2014, after over eight decades of operation, the Verso paper mill shut down in Bucksport. The town was devastated. Over 500 employees lost their jobs, the town tax base shrunk by 40 percent and the economic heart of the town stopped beating.
Though life as the community knew it in Bucksport seemed over, the town council, business owners and citizens decided to turn their grief into opportunity. The community banded together to turn the downtown area into a place that people — and, perhaps, new industries — would want to be.
“[The redevelopment of downtown Bucksport] really took off in 2014 when the mill closed, which seems sort of counterintuitive doesn’t it?” said Leslie Wombacher, executive director of the Bucksport Bay Area Chamber of Commerce. “It’s all about timing. Folks in the area got together and decided to really take on the main street ideals.”
Main Street Bucksport, an organization dedicated to the revitalization of the town’s downtown, formed weeks after the mill closure announcement.
Brook Minner, co-founder and executive director of Main Street Bucksport, said that the group’s approach to downtown redevelopment has been three-pronged: to cultivate the existing business community, to personally work with potential new business owners to highlight all the area has to offer and to host events such as the Bucksport Arts Festival and the International Maritime Film Festival to get feet on the downtown streets.
“That’s what we’ve been doing for the past four and a half years,” Minner said. “Part of why Bucksport has seen a lot of success is that people are working together. We work very closely with the town itself. We’re all moving in the same direction with the same goals.”
Minner said that nearly a dozen businesses have opened in downtown Bucksport since the mill closed in 2014.
“Right now, as far as I am aware, there’s only one empty building on Main Street,” Wombacher said. “That’s kind of amazing. There were more empty spaces when the mill was operating than now.”
Andy Lacher, owner of BookStacks in downtown Bucksport, has witnessed this transition first-hand. His bookstore has been in Bucksport since 1997, and he said that BookStacks has seen better sales in the past few years than in the last 20 years of business.
“Things are gradually getting better,” Lacher said. “There [are] more stores opening, and more people who have moved here that don’t think about Bangor and Ellsworth of being ‘town.’ They think that [Bucksport] is ‘town.’ There’s just too many good things here.”
Though Bucksport’s story is remarkable in its own right, it is not unique — there are several downtown areas in Maine that have made major strides over the past few decades, transforming into economic, social and cultural hubs.
According to Anne Ball, program director at the Maine Development Foundation, there are 10 downtown areas in Maine that are nationally designated Main Street Communities. These areas meet the national standard for the Main Street Approach, a tried-and-true, framework for downtown redevelopment heralded for over four decades by the organization Main Street America. Main Street Maine, the branch of Main Street America dedicated to Main Street Communities in the state, was founded in 1999.
“These downtowns are often the heart and soul of a community,” Ball said. “They are where people want to gather.”
There are four “points” of the Main Street Approach: economic vitality, which focuses on building a diverse downtown business community and encouraging new investment; design, which balances historic preservation with new public infrastructure; organization, or fostering supportive local leadership and connections between sectors; and promotion through telling the town’s story in a way that highlights its assets and supporting the buy local movement.
Even though there are only 10 nationally designated Main Street Communities in Maine, there is a constellation of 17 other affiliated communities that are working with organizations such as the Maine Development Foundation to revitalize their downtown areas. Bucksport, for example, is a state-designated Maine Downtown Affiliate Community.
Even downtown areas that are not affiliated with the program have used the techniques in their own downtown redevelopment.
“We are not a Main Street Community,” said Tanya Emery, director of community and economic development for the city of Bangor. “We were at this before those groups got started. We had our model that was working well for us.”
Emery explained that when Bangor began its process of downtown revitalization in the early 1990s, the city developed its own framework for redevelopment.
But she admitted that, however incidentally or organically, many of the principles that Bangor followed in its own downtown redevelopment adhered to the time-tested Main Street Approach.
Downtown redevelopment usually has a catalyst. A major change in employer, like the loss of the Verso paper mill in Bucksport or the Penobscot Poultry processing plant in Belfast in 1988, or the gain of MBNA — which would eventually become Bank of America — in Rockland, could kickstart downtown reinvestment. (The Penobscot Poultry plant, which famously filled the downtown streets with chicken feathers and odor, has since been converted into a community park called Belfast Commons.)
The relationship between downtown redevelopment and industry is somewhat chicken and egg. In Bucksport, the redeveloped downtown area attracted new employers to the city, while the arrival and investment of MBNA guaranteed a steady stream of customers to potential business owners in Rockland.
Other downtown leaders cite a gradual shift in the retail market as the progenitor of change, but the story is often more complicated than that.
“I think what’s important is to understand that for [Bangor] it’s never been either or: we’re focused on downtown, or we’re focused on the mall,” Emery said.