Infrastructure improvements, how to engage college students and an unprecedented increase in the tax valuation of the downtown district were some of the topics discussed Wednesday evening at the Downtown Bangor Partnership’s annual Town Hall Meeting.
According to Betsy Lundy, the city’s downtown coordinator, during the 2018-19 fiscal year, the total taxable value of all the property in the downtown district saw a 17.8 percent increase over the previous fiscal year, due in large part to the revitalization of a number of previously disused downtown Bangor buildings.
“There was more growth in our little section of town than in all the rest of the city,” said Lundy, who moderated the event, held at the Bangor Arts Exchange, which itself is in one of those recently revitalized buildings. “We have had a lot of properties that for many years were just dead space, but with some love and vision, we’re really reversing that.”
Lundy said that since the Bangor Center Corporation — the tax incentive financing district that stretches from the Bangor Waterfront to Harlow Street and up to the intersection of Hammond and High streets — was founded in the late 1980s, the tax value of that district has more than tripled.
Beyond tax numbers, Lundy also noted that 15 new businesses have opened in downtown Bangor in 2019 alone, while three — Specialty Sweets, Verve Burritos and Bahaar Pakistani — closed.
Lundy also revealed the results from an online survey conducted by the Downtown Bangor Partnership over the summer, which collected nearly 600 responses to questions about what people want to see in the downtown area. The overwhelming concern among the survey-takers was, Lundy said, infrastructure improvements — including improved sidewalks and crosswalks, better lighting on downtown streets, more trash receptacles and general concerns about parking.
“Obviously these are things that the city as a whole has to tackle, but we’ve already seen improvements just this year, with the renovations of Exchange and Columbia streets,” Lundy said, referring to the new sidewalks on both those downtown streets. “And the work on Pickering Square and Merchant’s Plaza is really going to blow people away, I think, when it’s complete.”
Concerns about panhandling, drug use and the downtown homeless population were also among the issues addressed by survey-takers, Lundy said, noting that 72 percent of those that filled out the survey identified themselves as Bangor community members.
The Downtown Bangor Partnership, a nonprofit group funded by the downtown tax district that has a board composed of downtown business owners, property owners and residents, provides support for a number of efforts to improve and promote the downtown. Those efforts include things such as the Wheat Paste Mural Project, the Adopt-a-Garden project, the Downtown Countdown on New Year’s Eve, the lights in Hannibal Hamlin Park and, new for 2019, the Sidewalk Arts Festival, which Lundy said attracted several thousand people during its first year back in downtown after a decadelong break.
Lundy said that one of the biggest challenges for the group was attracting young people to downtown.
“Only about 20 percent of the people that took our survey were under the age of 35, which is a pretty clear indication that we need to do more to attract younger people,” she said.
To that end, the partnership will on Sept. 27 hold its first Downtown Bangor College Night. The group has partnered with TipWhip, a local ridesharing service, to provide free transportation from the University of Maine, Husson University and Eastern Maine Community College to downtown Bangor on that night. Twenty-two downtown bars, restaurants, shops and venues will offer programming and special deals for college students all night long.
Several business owners at the meeting noted that in the past year they had seen a dramatic increase in the number of out of state and out of country visitors to their businesses.
“We hardly ever got tourists visiting us last year. This year, we saw people from out of state constantly,” said Amanda Coburn, owner of Maine Jewelry & Art on Harlow Street, who noted, along with several other attendees at the meeting, that some of that influx could possibly be attributed to an increased national awareness of Bangor thanks to the huge popularity of the “IT” movies and of Stephen King’s writing in general.
“I think, for us, a big part of our job is just getting the word out about what we have here,” Lundy said. “We’re a hidden gem. And sometimes, it’s the little things that make a big difference. It’s amazing how much people love trash cans and benches.”