E.J. Roach began noticing that more people were calling him to ask about available commercial properties in downtown Old Town.
Roach, the city’s director of economic and community development, estimated that at least a dozen people reached out to him regarding spaces to rent or purchase in a roughly one-month period.
The renewed interest in downtown came after a Bangor Daily News story published in November that chronicled Old Town’s attempts to revitalize its Main Street. Roach, in particular, has expressed a desire to create a more modern identity for the historic mill community, which could be realized if inquiries turn into real investments.
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One man even drove up from Portland and spent a day in Old Town checking out available properties after reading about the city’s economic progress, Roach said.
Despite a few setbacks — which included a massive 2019 fire, soon followed by the coronavirus pandemic — community leaders looked at Old Town’s dwindling city center as a chance to start anew.
As of Dec. 22, there were four vacant buildings on Main Street, which included the former Yamas Bar and Grill and the Boomhouse Restaurant. Some other downtown properties, such as the Sewall Building, are considered under-utilized but not vacant, Roach said.
In mid-August, the city conducted a community survey to solicit ideas for redeveloping downtown.
Most of the 388 respondents said they want more things to do, like farmers markets, coffee shops or general stores. Seventy-two percent want to incorporate local history and culture into the revitalization of downtown.
Wanting to bring a piece of Penobscot history back to downtown, Maria Girourard used her vacation fund to open a tribal gift shop on Main Street.
After several years of development, Old Town local Alex Gray finally opened Kanu, a combination restaurant and music venue. In 2017, Gray purchased the property at 283 Main — which formerly housed Kingman’s and the Dime, according to Penobscot Times archives.
He later acquired three adjoining buildings at 277, 275 and 285 Main, which are also being remodeled. The restaurant officially opened Nov. 27, about a week after hosting a private tasting event for friends and family.
And as 2020 came to a close, a beloved pizza joint that had disappeared for some years made a sudden reappearance in Old Town. Johnny’s Restaurant reopened on Dec. 28 — this time under the direction of Sunny Patel, owner of Tim’s Little Big Store and Dottie Ehman, a well-known community organizer.
Last year saw losses, too. The sports gear consignment store, Replay Sports, shuttered its doors in September, after struggling to make a profit as youth sports were put on hold.
At the end of December, the Penobscot Times closed its downtown office and relocated to the Bangor Daily News headquarters in Bangor.
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Still, the recent developments in Old Town could be a sign of more positive changes to come in 2021.
Joseph Cyr, whose grandfather started the Cyr Bus Line in 1912, said the growth of Old Town’s already established industries could have an important impact on the city’s economic future.
While a retail store such as a Reny’s or a dollar store would be beneficial for the community, lasting economic growth means more than bringing in new stores downtown.
It also means attracting more people to the area, he said. The growth of significant industries like the ND Paper Mill, for example, could encourage more people to settle in Old Town.
The community has watched downtown businesses come and go through the years — and the establishment of the Bangor Mall didn’t help to retain shoppers in Old Town, either, Cyr said.
While online shopping has become increasingly popular, he said he thinks the appeal of traditional brick and mortar stores is making a comeback. “I think people are coming back to the small towns because they want to talk to people.”
“I think we’re on an upswing, I really do. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it happens,” he said.
A council workshop to discuss next steps for the city’s revitalization has been tentatively scheduled for 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 19. The council workshop will likely take place via Zoom and a link to attend will be made available on the city council agenda, Roach said.
The city council has not yet finalized its new economic development committee. City Manager Bill Mayo did not respond to multiple requests for comment.