Almost exactly 10 years ago, the Bangor Daily News ran a two-part feature on downtown Bangor. It told the story of how the city, along with business and arts groups, had started to revitalize what was once a sleepy, largely boarded-up district.
Back then, downtown residents, patrons, business owners and community leaders made predictions, shared their hopes for the future and aired some concerns. Many hoped for more housing, more businesses, rebuilt infrastructure, more food (specifically, a noodle shop) and more entertainment options downtown.
A decade later, what came true, and what didn’t?
30 percent more housing
In 2006, the reference point in that 2010 article, Bangor’s downtown district had 492 housing units.
Today, there are 711, according to City Assessor Phil Drew — a 30 percent increase in 13 years. That number is also more than double the amount of downtown housing that was available in 1990, when there were just 332 units in the downtown district.
The downtown district stretches roughly from the Interstate 395-Main Street interchange to the Margaret Chase Smith Federal Building on the east side of Kenduskeag Stream to the intersection of Hammond, High and Court streets on the west side. The district covers the Bangor waterfront.
Many of the apartments added to the downtown’s housing inventory have come in the form of smaller projects, such as newly renovated apartments at 20 State St., 26 State St. and 91 Main St., all in buildings with no more than five units each. Two recently completed projects on Franklin Street, however, have brought 28 new high-end units to downtown.
“One of the fastest-growing Census tracts in our region is the downtown area. It rivals other fast-growing areas like Hampden and Glenburn in terms of growth,” said Michael Aube, former executive director of the Eastern Maine Development Corp.
A combination of careful planning by the city and developers stepping up to the plate has helped spur the growth of housing and overall livability of the downtown, Aube said.
“It’s really a fun place to be now. You can live, work, eat, be close to entertainment,” he said. “I’ve also noticed that it’s not just young professionals that are moving downtown. It’s also seniors, who decide they don’t need that four-bedroom house anymore, and want to be in an active, walkable area.”
20 percent more businesses
In 2010, there were 289 listed businesses in downtown Bangor, including sole-proprietor businesses such as therapists and accountants, according to the Downtown Bangor Partnership. As of December, there are 346 — approximately a 20 percent increase over the past decade.
The presence of more businesses and housing has translated into more taxable property downtown and lower vacancy rates.
In 2009, downtown Bangor’s retail vacancy rate was 14.5 percent, according to the Maine Real Estate and Development Association. Preliminary numbers for 2019 show that the rate was down to 6.3 percent. There are also several new buildings, most notably the Bangor Savings Bank corporate headquarters on the Bangor waterfront, which fully opened in February.
“I think the numbers show that a lot of what people had hoped for back then has come to pass,” said Bev Uhlenhake, a broker with Epstein Commercial Real Estate. “There’s further to go, of course, but looking at downtown Bangor in 2009 compared to now is a big jump.”
Of the 15 businesses mentioned in the 2010 stories, six still exist, including Epic Sports, the Fiddlehead Restaurant, Paddy Murphy’s, Ipanema Bar & Grill, Rebecca’s Gift Shop and Thai Siam, which moved up the street and is now Mama D Thai Cuisine.
Nine other businesses have closed, but the storefronts they occupied now house different businesses — Giacomo’s is now the Grindhouse, the Whig & Courier is now Blaze Restaurant, the Grasshopper Shop is now home to Mexicali Blues, and so on.
Beyond retail and dining, downtown Bangor has also seen major changes in its available office space. In 2014, the University of Maine System started moving 102 employees out of its former home at 16 Central St., and into offices on university campuses. The upper floors of 16 Central St. remain empty.
The next year, the Bangor Daily News moved to 1 Merchants Plaza, bringing roughly 100 employees downtown. And renovations started earlier this year in the same building to prepare for the relocation of engineering consulting firm CES Inc., which will bring about 60 employees downtown when it relocates from Brewer.
The largest infusion of downtown office employees has come from Bangor Savings Bank, which finished its move to newly constructed corporate headquarters on the Bangor waterfront in February. Five hundred employees now work on the campus, which has 117,000 square feet of office space. The bank’s former Franklin Street headquarters, in another section of downtown, is now apartments.
Infrastructure still a concern
Another issue raised in 2010 was the need for major investments in downtown infrastructure. Crumbling sidewalks, poorly designed pedestrian ways and a lack of upkeep made the area seem less than inviting.
In the past five years, several major infrastructure projects were completed, including a complete overhaul of both West Market Square and Merchants Plaza, new sidewalks on Exchange and Columbia street, the relocation of the Pickering Square parking garage entrance, and redesigned intersections at high-traffic locations, including the corner of State and Harlow streets, and the corner of Park and Center streets. Multiple water mains and sewer and stormwater lines were also replaced during a multi-year project that was completed earlier this year.
In 2020, Pickering Square will undergo a renovation and work is expected to start on a redesign of the Community Connector bus depot, a new footbridge over the Kenduskeag is expected to be installed and work will begin on the installation of a long-awaited wastewater storage tank on the waterfront.
In a survey taken by the Downtown Bangor Partnership this year, infrastructure concerns continued to be the No. 1 issue reported by downtown stakeholders.
Though taxpayer money paid for those improvements, private investment paid for others, such as the redevelopment of the Nichols Block on Exchange Street and the renovation of the buildings at 27 and 28 Broad St. In 2010, plans were still underway for 28 Broad St. to house the Bangor Historical Society Museum, but that project was abandoned in 2012. In 2013, developer Telford Allen III purchased the building and turned it into high-end apartments, with Evenrood’s restaurant and Designs by Aaron jewelry store at the street level.
Among the only large buildings left empty in downtown is five-story 73 Central St., which has mostly been empty for more than three decades. Its owner, California-based David Boyd, presently owes the city $25,890 in unpaid taxes and utility bills, three years after he last paid more than $35,000 in unpaid taxes and bills under threat of the city taking possession of the building.
In 2010, Shirar Patterson was the city’s downtown coordinator. Back then, she spoke about the need to revitalize some of those old buildings — in particular, the buildings that now comprise the Nichols Block and are home to the Bangor Arts Exchange, City Drawers lingerie store, the Bangor location of Black Bear Brewing Co. and other businesses.
“I think about it now, and reflect on what’s happened, and I am really proud that the momentum has continued,” said Patterson, now the president and CEO of United Way of Eastern Maine. “I think it’s really important to note that not only did the city make investments in the downtown, but individuals also saw the potential in old buildings. It’s all a lot of really hard work. That’s really what’s made all this happen: hard work.”
Yes, there’s a noodle shop
Those quoted in 2010 also shared the sorts of cultural attractions and dining opportunities they wanted to see downtown. Specific wishes included a noodle shop, a farmers market, a movie theater and a dedicated live music venue.
All four have come true in one form or another. Umami Noodle Bar opened in 2014. The Bangor Farmers Market has operated from May through November in Abbott Square since 2012. While there isn’t a traditional movie theater, Queen City Cinema Club opened in 2018, offering private screening rooms, video and board gaming, and other live entertainment. And since 2017, the Bangor Arts Exchange has brought live music, comedy, dance and lectures to once sleepy Exchange Street.
Something that couldn’t have been predicted back in 2010 was the Waterfront Concerts series that started later that year. Ten years on, that venue — now the 16,000-seat Darling’s Waterfront Pavilion — has hosted close to 200 concerts, including sold-out shows from the likes of Chris Stapleton, Ed Sheeran, Tool, Jimmy Buffet, Luke Bryan, Imagine Dragons and Kenny Chesney.
Remarkably, one of the most crucial early developments in the revitalization of the downtown and waterfront, the American Folk Festival, announced last month that the 2019 festival was its last after 18 years.
One other request — a downtown grocery store or bodega offering basic necessities — has been a bit harder to come by. After the Rite Aid at the corner of Union and Third streets closed earlier this year, there are now no convenience stores, groceries or pharmacies in the downtown district, though several are within walking distance.
‘Vitality is the norm’
Of the 20 people interviewed for the 2010 stories, just seven still live and work in Bangor. Four have retired and have moved out of Bangor or out of state. Four have moved to southern Maine or New Hampshire, four have moved to the western U.S. or to another country, and one has died.
As in most of the rest of Maine, attracting and maintaining a population of younger people in Bangor is a challenge. Despite the challenge, one change some note in downtown Bangor over the past decade is more intangible: a feeling of progress has replaced a state of slow decline.
Adam Goode, a Bangor native and former Democratic state representative, moved to Topsham in August 2017, so he and his now-wife could be closer to work. But he comes back to Bangor regularly, because nearly his entire family and many friends still live here. He said that many of the things he’d hoped for in 2010 when the BDN interviewed him have come to pass — there’s more music, more food, more foot traffic and more young people.
“I feel like a phony, in some ways, but Bangor is still my home,” Goode said. “I’m just as enthusiastic about it now as I was back then, even if I don’t get to live there anymore.”
Patterson, who now lives in Hampden but has worked in Bangor for her entire professional career, said progress, both economic and cultural, has become the norm for the downtown community — replacing the state of slow decline that dominated the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s.
“I don’t know that I could have imagined all of this happening back then,” Patterson said. “And it’s also kind of hard to remember what it was like 10, 15 years ago, because I think now we’re much more accustomed to things being lively downtown, and having lots of stuff to do. I think progress is the norm now. Vitality is the norm.”