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How these Maine downtowns turned themselves around after decades of decline

Downtown Belfast, photographed here in June 2019, is one of 10 nationally designated Main Street communities in the state. [Gabor Degre | BDN]
Story by Sam Schipani, Bangor Metro
Presentation by Lindsay Putnam, Digital Engagement Editor
July 27, 2019 1:00 am

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.

Sam Schipani | BDN
Sam Schipani | BDN
Downtown Bucksport pictured in May 2019, with the defunct Verso paper mill in the background.

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.

Sam Schipani | BDN
Sam Schipani | BDN
Pedestrians enjoying the Bucksport Waterfront Walkway in downtown Bucksport in May 2019.

“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.”

The heart and soul of the city

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.”

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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.

How redevelopment begins

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.

Courtesy of the Belfast Historical Society & Museum
Courtesy of the Belfast Historical Society & Museum
Demolition of the Penobscot Poultry building in 1997. The site is now the location of Belfast Common Park.

Emery explained that the revitalization of downtown Bangor was more a sign of the times than of the city’s attention. In the 1970s, as strip malls gained popularity, downtowns became less attractive to investors. The tables turned in the mid-90s, she explained, as consumers looking for a fresh retail experience meant that investors were more interested in helping downtown areas rebound from the challenges they had developed.

A similar story played out in other areas of Maine. Janna Richards has only worked as the economic development director for the City of Ellsworth since November 2018, but she said her predecessors marked the change in traditional retail in the early 2000s as the beginning of Ellsworth investing in its downtown.

Increasingly, the diversity of experiences — including arts, dining and outdoor recreation in Ellsworth’s Harbor Park and Marina — has made downtown shopping appealing in an era where shopping alone can be done with a click of a button online.

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
Main Street in Downtown Rockland, seen in February 2019.

Richards illustrated this change with the Maine Grind building, a converted multi-use mason building in downtown Ellsworth that contains a mix of businesses ranging from the Seven Arts Local Artisan Gallery and The Natural Alternative massage studio to the Hancock Soil and Water Conservation District and law offices.

“It’s the first of its kind in this area,” Richards said. “It has pretty much all of the different types of services — amenities, food, art [and] retail, all built into one building. That was kind of cutting edge, particularly Ellsworth that was stuck in a model of just retail. If you cluster similar types of uses together they kind of all feed off each other.”

The challenges of reviving Maine’s downtown areas

Though Maine’s downtowns have their advantages — Ball said the quality of historic buildings and the ease of access to outdoor recreation are among the aspects that stand out to her — there are challenges to redeveloping downtown areas in Maine. Finding the funds to redevelop a downtown area from an ever-shrinking tax base is one such challenge.

Though tourism dollars can bolster a reviving downtown — Bucksport, for example, hopes to become a cruise ship destination — experts agree that a successful downtown area must be vibrant all day and year round, even in the middle of a Maine winter.

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
People walk around in downtown Belfast in June 2019.

“One of the big things is figuring out how to have life be 24 hours,” Ball said. “You have to make [the downtowns] active beyond the summer tourism season. They need to be vibrant places year round.”

Downtown Ellsworth serves as one of the gateway communities for Acadia National Park, but unlike downtown areas such as Bar Harbor that live and die on tourism dollars, Ellsworth is more focused on meeting the needs of its residents.

“We’ve done a really great job of highlighting Ellsworth as an authentic downtown [with] a mix of service-based and retail-based businesses,” said Cara Romano, executive director of Heart of Ellsworth. “Being able to have the option to get 75 to 80 percent of what you need on a daily basis [is essential].”

Downtown Belfast, which is one of the 10 nationally-designated Main Street Communities in Maine, has also made efforts to promote year round activity. The city hosts winter events like the Belfast Winter Whoopla and has made local trails accessible to cross country skiing and snowshoeing.

“It’s a year round community,” said Steve Ryan, executive director of the Belfast Area Chamber of Commerce. “We don’t close down in the winter. You feel like you’re in My Town USA as opposed to some place you’re visiting and you’ll spend some money and bring back souvenirs.”

Bringing business back to Main Street

A tight-knit, supportive business community that cares just as much about cultivating a downtown experience as they do their bottom line has proven essential to downtown redevelopment in Maine. In fact, many business owners recognized that the two are inextricably linked.

“I see a level of collaboration between people who, from the outside, are seen as competitors,” Emery said of downtown Bangor. “It’s not a cut-throat environment. It’s an environment of collaboration and support, of rising tide lifts all boats.”

Emery said that organizations such as the Downtown Bangor Partnership help foster these connections between the community and business owners.

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
Maine Street in Ellsworth pictured in May 2019.

“We have a common meeting space and a common objective,” she said. “When I see the level of excitement and enthusiasm, [it’s like], ‘We’re all in this together, let’s come up with some cool events that will bring people into downtown, let’s leverage the arts and culture institutions that we have.’”

The inclusion of arts and culture in the business mix is also key to successful redevelopment — not just aesthetically, but economically. According to a study conducted by the Americans for the Arts, the non-profit arts and culture sector generates $10 million annually for the city of Bangor.

“Our arts organizations, and the amount of people who come to my store and go to other local businesses because of the theater, is just amazing,” said Summer Allen, owner of Valentine Footwear, who has been in downtown Bangor next to the Penobscot Theater since 2011. “Parents dropping off kids [for the Penobscot Theatre Dramatic Academy] go to the business next door. We get people browsing before shows. It’s just these fun, organic ways of growing downtown.”

When Nick Turner moved from Colorado to Maine in 2017 to take the reins as executive director of The Grand, a performing arts center for cinema, live theater and events in downtown Ellsworth, he positioned the 81-year-old institution as an essential part of the future of downtown development.

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“Part of my strategy has always been working closely with businesses and organizations,” Turner explained. “When I went to the city council, I communicated how important the Grand is to the economic future of Ellsworth. A lot of businesses here have the same philosophy.”

Tom Luttrell, city manager of Rockland, said that part of the area’s transition from a “rough, tough” place to the “arts capital of Maine” had to do, in part, with MBNA’s investment in the city’s art scene in the early 2000s when they moved in.

“They set up shop on the waterfront, they did a boardwalk and started investing in the city. They put money into the Farnsworth [Art Museum],” Luttrell said. “I think that helped to grow Rockland and put us on the map as an arts capital. It put us on the art scene, which brings people in.”

Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Portland Pie Co. is one of the newest businesses on Main Street in downtown Bangor, having opened its doors on June 11, 2019.

As its reputation has grown, Rockland has looked for creative ways to continue growing without pricing out potential talent. The city recently passed a proposal by the Ellis-Beauregard Foundation to convert an old high school building into affordable housing for artists in downtown Rockland.

Luttrell — and other leaders across towns that have successfully redeveloped — cited another important component of downtown redevelopment: buy-in from the community.

When downtown Rockland was designated as a Tax Incentive Fund district — a common mechanism to incentivize growth in struggling towns by earmarking property tax funds for economic development — Luttrell said that he held a number of public workshops to both ensure that residents understood the upcoming changes and had an opportunity to provide feedback.

“[It’s] mainly [about] listening to the concerns of the citizens throughout the entire city and mak[ing] sure everyone is being heard and taken care of,” Luttrell said. “If you don’t have the buy-in from the people who live here, work here, shop here and make the decisions like our city council, I think your downtown can suffer.”

If the community is committed to redevelopment, the signs are obvious. The storefronts will be full, people will be enjoying the parks, the streets will be bustling with pedestrians and business owners will make an extra effort to keep the buildings beautiful.

Ultimately, the key to redeveloping Maine’s downtown areas is to build them for Mainers.

This story was originally published in Bangor Metro’s August 2019 issue. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.

 


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