Editor’s Note: This is the first in a 2-part series examining downtown Bangor

BANGOR, Maine — Ten years and 23 days ago, Adam Goode was celebrating the end of the 20th century with friends at the New Moon Cafe, then located on Main Street across from West Market Square downtown.

While Goode, a junior at Bangor High School at the time, was enjoying live music in the company of fellow Bangorians, the scene outside the door was desolate.

“It was the millennium. It was 1999 into 2000, one of the biggest New Year’s celebrations ever. You think, wow, this is going to be a huge night, right?” said Goode, now 26 and a state representative for Bangor, District 15. “Aside from the New Moon, there was absolutely no one in downtown Bangor. It was dead. Nothing was open. The streets were empty.”

To ring in 2010, more than 2,000 people flooded a closed-off West Market Square and Main Street to watch the downtown Bangor ball drop, contradance, check out local bands and grab a cocktail with friends. The downtown Bangor of 2010 is a place bustling with new businesses, new people and new life.

Ask those who live or work downtown and they’ll tell you Bangor has changed a lot over the past decade. New organizations, businesses and residents have opened formerly shuttered windows and taken down for-lease signs, creating a thriving, growing city center that boasts a variety of shopping, dining, arts and entertainment opportunities.

Downtown doesn’t go to bed at 5 p.m. anymore. On any given night, diners fill restaurants, local bands play at bars and people travel on foot to various destinations. Even in the winter.

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“I came downtown the other night, and I couldn’t park in front of my own store,” said Brad Ryder, owner of the Central Street business Epic Sports, now in its 13th year of operation. “This wasn’t on a weekend or during a big downtown event, either. This was a weeknight. People were out and about. That unquestionably says something to me.”

Decisions made by city officials over the past decade helped usher in this nascent renaissance. Within a few years, definable results set the stage for the influx of new businesses and residents.

The continued vitality of life downtown, however, is largely dependent upon an active and engaged community of people — many of them in their 20s and 30s — who want to live, work and create in the Queen City.

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Strategic enhancements

The urban renewal movement of the late 1960s decimated downtown Bangor. Beginning in the 1970s, the city’s economic focus was on building up the Bangor Mall area. Downtown was left to languish in the shadow of the Mall.

Real change began in 1999.

“There was an overall strategy put in place when I was on city council 10 years ago,” said Mike Aube, president and CEO of Eastern Maine Development Corp., who served on the Bangor City Council at that time.

“Policies were made that directly addressed how we could enhance downtown. It was one of the most important decisions the council ever made, I think.”

The city decided to buy from several landlords two large, historic buildings that had been empty for decades and to commit funds to the development of two major cultural organizations in downtown.

“Ten years ago, the City Council decided they wanted to do something big for downtown,” said former Bangor Mayor John Rohman, who served on the council with Aube. “They wanted to give it a much-needed jolt and increase the tax base.”

The Freese’s building on Main Street, still owned by the city, now houses the Maine Discovery Museum and housing for the elderly. The W.T. Grant building at the corner of Central and Hammond streets is the home of Epic Sports and the University of Maine System offices, and both now own their spaces.

The University of Maine Museum of Art, which was partially funded by the city, is located at Norumbega Hall as is Eastern Maine Development Corp. EMDC purchased the building in 2005 from the Connecticut-based Couri Foundation.

By 2002, downtown housed an art museum, a children’s museum, a number of new businesses and two organizations — the University of Maine System and EMDC — that immediately brought new employees and patrons into the city.

“Having those cultural magnets downtown and building up a presence like that, was probably the most important thing we could have done for downtown,” said Rohman. “Also, having the University of Maine as a presence downtown has been huge. We can never capitalize enough on people from the university — staff, students or otherwise — coming here. They are an absolutely vital resource we should be courting much more than we do even now.”

Downtown Bangor was becoming a destination that anyone could visit and enjoy.

“When the EMDC offices were on Franklin Street, the real economic interest for Bangor was located anywhere but downtown,” said Aube. “If we had clients working with us, we actively avoided going downtown. We’d run them past, not through. Now we ask them what kind of food they’d like to eat. We drive them around. We show downtown off. We’re proud of it.”

Purchasing and renovating vacant buildings downtown and then filling them with a wide variety of cultural and commercial ventures set the stage for the next big thing: bringing the National Folk Festival to Bangor.

“The Folk Festival probably never would have come to Bangor had we not made that initial investment in arts and culture in Bangor,” said Rohman, who was chairman of the National Folk Festival during its three-year stay in Bangor. “The [Penobscot] Theatre, the museums, the Shakespeare Festival [held in the late 1990s on the waterfront], and all the progress we’d made definitely made Bangor the choice to host the festival. Without those things, it would not have happened.”

The National Folk Festival, and the American Folk Festival that grew out of it, gave Bangor something vital but not easily measured: a self-esteem boost.

“I think it certainly provided a sense among the average Bangor resident of, ‘Wow, this can happen here.’ I think people thought that if they can pull the Folk Festival off, then maybe other things, even on a much smaller scale, were possible. The KahBang Festival certainly wouldn’t have happened if the Folk Festival hadn’t happened,” said Rohman.

The KahBang Festival, an outdoor concert held in August 2009 produced and promoted by Bangor-based West Market Productions, brought more than 1,000 paying music fans to the Bangor waterfront to hear a variety of indie rock bands. A greatly expanded festival will be held Aug. 6-14 this year, incorporating more bands and a film festival.

That “Wow, this can happen here” element, according to downtown devotees, comes from a growing resource: the people who live and work here.

A collaborative spirit

Laura Albin and Melissa Chaiken risked a lot last spring when they signed a lease for space at 84 Hammond St., one of the old Bangor Furniture buildings renovated in the late 1990s. Albin, 29, and Chaiken, 26, had long worked as a maitre d’ and a chef, but neither had owned a business. Were they ready for it? Was Bangor ready for them?

You’d be hard-pressed to walk in off the street and get a table at the Fiddlehead Restaurant on a Friday night when Albin is running the front of the house and Chaiken is in her kitchen, cooking elegant, Asian-influenced bistro food. Will it be the ginger-infused chicken with lotus root and rice porridge? Or will it be the bouillabaisse?

“Bangor is nothing like it was when I moved back here in 2005,” said Albin, a Skowhegan native. “It seems like more mid- to late 20s and early to mid-30s people are moving back here or are just moving here, period. It doesn’t seem like a locals versus outsiders war. People are very friendly to everyone, local or not. People tend to be fairly comfortable with each other.”

Comfortable with each other, and supportive of one another. When Fiddlehead opened last August, Albin recalls people dropping in just to wish her well, even if they couldn’t get a table.

When Central Street lunch spot Giacomo’s temporarily shut down in February 2009 because of code enforcement issues, disappointed customers rallied together to help bring it back — fully renovated and reinvigorated.

Gibran Graham, organizer of Bangor’s comic convention BangPop and the “Big Lebowski” celebration, even went so far as to organize the Bangor Lunch Mob over the winter and spring of 2009. Graham used the power of Facebook and Twitter to bring “mobs” of hungry Bangorians into a different downtown lunch spot each week.

“People show so much support for places,” said Albin. “I remember I ran out of straws the other week, and John Dobbs from Paddy’s brought up a box for us. People do things like that. Where else does that happen?”

The collaborative spirit is reflected in multiple ways. The Downtown Bangor Art Walks, which began in the fall of 2008, bring together the UM Art Museum, local galleries, artists’ studios and businesses to showcase the arts scene downtown.

The Square is a coalition of six late-night eating and drinking establishments surrounding West Market Square — Paddy Murphy’s, the Whig & Courier, the Reverend Noble Pub, Ipanema, the Thai Siam Lounge and Giacomo’s — that work together on events and share resources.

City sponsored events, such as the Downtown Countdown and the holiday shopping days, bring people together to see what downtown has to offer.

Nineteen businesses have opened downtown in the past five years and are still operating. Others have come and gone, but there remain 10 restaurants and bars, five retail stores, a music studio, a hair salon, a tattoo studio, a yoga studio and a fitness center that chose downtown Bangor as the place to do business.

“This is a really corny phrase, but I think the sleeping giant is starting to wake up a little,” said Brad Ryder. “Downtown has been dormant for so long, aside from a few standbys like the Grasshopper [Shop] and Rebecca’s. It’s time for this area to get going. I always think back to John Rohman’s efforts to bring the museums downtown. He was right about it. And darn it, it’s coming around.”

Creating a unique identity

National chain stores are the same in every community. Locally owned shops in downtown areas vary from city to city — and shoppers seeking a unique experience know where to look.

By day, downtown Bangor supports a small but healthy collection of shops. Downtown anchors such as The Grasshopper Shop, Best Bib & Tucker, Rebecca’s and Epic Sports have long weathered the economic ups and downs. Newer businesses such as American Retro, Metropolitan Soul, Bella Luna Boutique and the by-appointment Maureen Elizabeth Handbags have moved into town in the past five years.

“I have definitely seen an interest in people not only wanting to shop locally, but also wanting to buy stuff that’s made locally,” said Heather Van Frankenhuyzen, who opened Bella Luna Boutique on Main Street in 2007.

“I carry so much stuff made by local clothing and jewelry designers, and we sell a lot of it, too. I can’t keep [Orono designer] Jessie Sader’s stuff on the racks.”

Van Frankenhuyzen, who moved from Seattle to Bangor four years ago with her husband, Ahmed Abdel El-Mageed, missed working in retail and did not, under any circumstances, want to open a store in the Mall area. Downtown was it. In the two years since opening her shop, she has found that her customers are far more savvy than she had expected.

“I think people might underestimate the people here in Bangor,” she said. “I think they’re a lot more hip and aware than some might realize. I mean, take a look at the people downtown. They’re kind of plugged in, you know? They don’t want to do all their shopping and eating and living at the big-box stores and chain restaurants. They want that local feel.”

Rick Schweikert, owner of the Grasshopper Shop, echoed that sentiment.

“It turned out for us that we had the best Christmas season we’ve ever had this past December,” said Schweikert, who has run his funky gift and clothing shop downtown for more than 20 years. “I think there’s a real sense of wanting to shop local and keep money in Maine. That really made a big impact for us.”

Jira Rustana, 22, opened the Tha1 Lounge on Main Street in July 2009. The son of Thai Siam restaurant owner Chinda Rustana, he returned to Bangor from California after he finished at the Art Institute of Santa Monica, where he studied film and where, by night, he worked in swanky nightclubs.

Initially Rustana didn’t think a smaller dance club, such as ones he worked at in California, would work in Bangor. After turning 21, going out in downtown Bangor, and seeing the growing numbers of young, hip bar patrons, he realized it might not be so far-fetched after all.

He renovated the long-empty space adjacent to Thai Siam and opened his business last summer. He now has to turn people away on the weekends when disc jockeys Dan Flannery and Les Rhoda attract crowds of dancers.

“I honestly thought I’d have more of a business-casual crowd,” said Rustana. “But apparently Bangor really, really needed a place like this. I think it can support even more businesses like this, as well as more retail. If we can do it, anyone can do it.”

After living in upstate New York, Phoenix, Ariz., and St. Louis, Mo., Bangor native Mallory Bruns moved back to Bangor in 2008. Much to her surprise, she has found she likes it here and has had success making and marketing her clothing line, Sophronia Designs.

Her clothing can be purchased at Bella Luna Boutique, and she has been a contributor to fashion shows, including ones at Luna Bar & Grille and the West Market Festival held downtown each June.

For Bruns, 24, Bangor is a perfect place to start a business. The small population and the growing sense of community downtown create a natural incubator. Many things larger communities take for granted — multitudes of artists, designers, bands and restaurants — are still new, untested and exciting in Bangor.

“I get bored easily. I need things to do all the time. And I think in Bangor you can just do something and not many people are going to hold you back,” she said. “You can be the first person to do something here, and it’ll definitely make an impact. That level of, like, jadedness isn’t here. It’s still new and exciting to us. There isn’t a lot of pretentiousness here.”

Bruns is still surprised she is living here and liking it.

“I think, in the past, it was looked on as kind of lame if you stayed in Bangor,” Bruns said. “You were supposed to move away and not be here, because there was just something inherently not cool about Bangor. But I don’t feel that way, and I don’t think many of my friends feel that way. Bangor kind of rocks now.”

John Dobbs, 37, unveiled the cozy, inviting, Irish-themed Paddy Murphy’s Pub in March 2007. He moved to the Bangor area nearly 20 years ago, and he knew early on he didn’t want to leave.

“I believe in Bangor. I believe in the area itself. I can only answer for myself, but I can’t think of a better place to raise my family and own a business,” said Dobbs. “I’m one of those people who would usually be part of the brain drain. I came here from Ohio to go to UMaine. But I stuck around. I didn’t want to move out of state or go to Portland. I wanted to be here.”

Next: What downtown Bangor still needs to reach its potential.

Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.