BELFAST, Maine — Located right next to a gleaming speciality olive oil, vinegar and wine shop and two doors down from a $300-per-night boutique hotel, the Belfast Army-Navy store on Main Street seems like a holdout from a different, grittier time.
On Tuesday, men wearing Carhartt coveralls picked through the racks of balaclavas and outdoor gear. Machetes and knives were kept under plexiglas at the front counter and the windows featured an eclectic display of mannequins wearing scouting uniforms and second-hand musical instruments. Everything was on sale, because at the end of April the store will close and be reopened as a Christmas shop.
“We used to be a pawn shop,” Ronald Mullen, 73, the proprietor, said Tuesday morning. “Belfast has changed a lot.”
He was quick to reassure his customers that he was looking out for them as he prepares to retire. The new Christmas shop will continue to sell scouting uniforms and supplies and the Home Supply Center will stock paintball gear.
But still, the change is worrisome to some locals, who fear that the city may be embracing too much gentrification too quickly, especially after watching another Main Street institution, Weaver’s Bakery, close this winter after nearly 60 years in business. The storefront, where the coffee-drinking crowd of regulars gathered in early mornings for decades to shoot the breeze and discuss city and national politics, will reopen as an environmental consulting firm.
Helen Sahadi, who owns Heavenly Socks Yarns, said that the same day she learned of the Army-Navy store’s closing, she looked into expanding into a newly-renovated storefront space.
When she heard the price — $2,500 a month — she was dumbfounded. Usual rents downtown range around $1,200.
“I couldn’t imagine having to sell that much yarn. I try to keep my prices down because of the range of people’s incomes in Waldo County, where even the millionaires drive Subarus,” Sahadi said. “I am concerned about the future of Belfast.”
Some in the former chicken factory town on the Passagassawakeag River wondered if the increased prosperity and tourism meant that their community was going to start looking like Camden, a longtime New England travel destination. That town is located just 18 miles south on U.S. Route 1, but in many ways, Camden and Belfast have historically been worlds apart.
“I hope not, but I guess we are,” Eunice Palmer, who has sold hardware to the community since 1968 at her Main Street Home Supply Center, answered when asked if Belfast was headed in that direction. “We can’t help it — because people like Belfast very much.”
Becoming more like Camden, to many in Belfast, means having an abundance of beautiful gift shops but perhaps a diminishment of blue-collar soul.
“I’m not badmouthing Camden. It’s a great place,” City Councilor and Belfast businessman Mike Hurley said. “But when people say that, they’re thinking ‘are we going to lose our gritty businesses in downtown?’”
Breanna Pinkham Bebb of the civic organization Our Town Belfast said that every community will always face change.
“It’s sad to see places like Weaver’s and the Army Navy store closing up. They’ve been part of the community for so long,” she said. “We certainly hope to keep the character of Belfast the way its been.”
She said that her organization has an economic restructuring committee which looks at assessing the mix of downtown businesses, and when vacancies occur, to be aware of what the community needs.
“I hope that Belfast stays affordable for everyone,” she said.
But the town’s gentrification — if that’s what to call it — has many upsides, locals say. Downtown looks very different than it did just five years ago, when an abundance of empty storefronts worried local boosters. Palmer said she appreciates that more people are choosing to live in the second and third floors of the downtown buildings. Colby Horne, who will be the fourth generation of his family to run Colburn Shoe, said that there’s much more to do since he went to high school here 12 years ago.
“It’s a desirable downtown to be in,” he said. “All the growth, and local groups working to make our downtown successful.”
Susan Woods, the owner of Vinolio, grew up in Belfast. The economy has definitely changed enough to support her olive oil, vinegar and specialty food shop, she said, but not everything is different.
“The feel of the community has stayed the same,” she said. “It’s changing, but I really don’t think it’s going to lose its true character. Maybe [gentrification] can co-exist with the grassroots of the community.”