More than a decade ago, when fires destroyed several Main Street buildings and forced the permanent closure of a few businesses in Northeast Harbor, it brought into sharp focus a battle for the village’s future that residents and business owners had been losing for many years.
But 12 years later, new life is coming to Northeast Harbor, the largest of several villages in the town of Mount Desert. As the Maine Seacoast Mission nears completion of its new headquarters on Old Firehouse Lane, where it expects to relocate from Bar Harbor this fall, another Bar Harbor institution says it too has plans to develop a site and raise its profile in the shrinking village.
College of the Atlantic is planning to partner with local community organization Mount Desert 365 to develop student housing on Main Street, on the site where one of three buildings were destroyed by fire on July 29, 2008. The college said it plans to house approximately 15 “primarily older” students in the building, and hopes to foster relationships with local groups and perhaps host events in the town.
“The [building] will be a catalyst for deepening COA’s mission to add to the cultural, intellectual, and economic vitality of Mount Desert Island, while supporting Mount Desert 365’s mission of promoting the long-term economic vitality of the town of Mount Desert,” Darron Collins, COA’s president, said.
The building, to be constructed at 141 Main Street, will consist of three floors, including retail space on the first floor. It will be designed to fit in with the existing architecture on Main Street, but will be built with sustainable methods and materials to be as energy efficient as possible.
It will stand between Colonel’s Bakery and part of the Kimball Shop and Boutique on the site where the Joy Building was damaged beyond repair 12 years ago in a fire. That fire also destroyed the bakery, which has since been rebuilt, and the former Wingspread Gallery.
Even before the fires, which include a January 2009 blaze that destroyed the Tan Turtle Tavern, the town of Mount Desert has seen its year-round population decline significantly as housing prices have gone up, driven largely by demand from wealthier summer residents — as has Mount Desert Island as a whole.
As more year-round residents moved away in recent decades, Northeast Harbor’s offseason population has shrunk from close to 1,000 residents to fewer than 350, Kathy Miller, executive director of Mount Desert 365, has said. Enrollment at the local elementary school, which has students from kindergarten through eighth grade, has dropped from close to 240 in the late 1990s to around 160 this year, according to town and state data.
This decline has occurred simultaneously with changes in the retail industry, brought on by the popularity of regional big-box retailers and online commerce, that have caused many locally owned shops to close down.
Northeast Harbor used to have a fish market, a drug store, a shoe repair shop, a bookstore and other year-round retail businesses that have faded away over the past 50 years. Now a market, a hardware store, and a convenience store are about the only places that sell things through the dead of winter.
Mount Desert 365 was formed in 2017 because of the increasingly quiet winters in Northeast Harbor. A group of seasonal and year-round residents wanted to rejuvenate the community, but without a change in character that would occur if the town, for example, shifted its focus to cater more to itinerant tourists than to local property owners.
The town’s Summer Residents Association also has taken an interest in helping to sustain the community, and recently raised more than $1 million to provide assistance to local businesses harmed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mount Desert 365, which owns the lot at 141 Main Street and will lease it to COA, said that the development arrangement will help bring not just more winter residents to Northeast Harbor, but more ideas and energy.
Sam Shaw, a local jeweler and Main Street gallery owner, has been among the local residents who have organized efforts to revitalize the village. He said that the new building will help fill in the “hockey teeth smile” along the Main Street storefronts caused by the fires.
“I’m delighted. I’m 100 percent enthusiastic,” Shaw said of COA’s plans. “To fill these [vacant lots] in is very important.”
The project is about more than a new building, or creating more retail space, Shaw said, calling COA a “sensational” institution. By housing students in Northeast Harbor and possibly bringing some programs to the village, it will help liven things up, he said.
“These things build incrementally, and this is a big increment,” Shaw said. “I feel very optimistic about the future.”
Funding for the new development will come from a $50 million fundraising effort the college launched publicly last year, which includes a goal of $5 million for new student housing, according to COA. The school, which has capped enrollment at 350, currently provides housing for roughly 175 of its students, and with the campaign intends to provide housing for 100 more, college officials said.