OLD TOWN, Maine — A destination business such as specialty grocery store Trader Joe’s or retailer L.L. Bean is something residents think will help change the underutilized downtown into a place people want to visit.
Residents offered their input into redesigning the downtown area during a workshop Monday night at the public library. They also suggested upscale housing with commercial space, an outlet mall, a kayak water park, a hotel, restaurant, business incubators and even a Stephen King theme park.
Adding a new facade along Main Street, walking and biking trails, lighting, benches, parking and promoting the community’s connection to the Penobscot Indian Nation and the Penobscot River also made the residents’ wish list.
“We want to be inviting to pedestrians, we want to be inviting to University of Maine students, we want to be inviting to all age groups and we want to [showcase] our culture,” one resident said at the conclusion of the two-hour gathering.
City leaders are working with engineering firm Wright-Pierce on a master plan for the center of the city and for the former Old Town Canoe factory site, with associated improvements around the two areas.
After Travis Pryor, project manager for Wright-Pierce, gave a quick history of the two projects, residents were broken into nine smaller working groups of at least five members tasked with brainstorming ideas.
“This is really the most important part of the process,” Pryor said.
He told attendees Old Town is a younger community with an average age of around 30 with nearby amenities, including the University of Maine, the Penobscot River and the Bangor area. But he said the city also has drawbacks that include traffic flow and the fact that “you have 300,000 square feet of underutilized building space” in the downtown area.
Increasing student housing and public transportation between Old Town and UMaine were suggested by the table where Lee Jackson, a UMaine student and member of the Regional School Unit 34 school board, sat.
“When I talk to students, they tell me their big concern is, ‘I don’t have a good place to live,’” Jackson said. “Now that the University of Maine is only letting freshmen and sophomores stay on campus, there will be even more of a demand. A lot of people want to live near campus, but they don’t want to live at the Grove or Orchard Trails [because] it’s loud and you can’t study. They can’t really find anyplace else, so they head to Bangor.”
Kosta’s and the Boomhouse are great additional eateries for the city, but the community needs more, Jackson said.
Table seven included Old Town Council member Carol May, Carol Klitch, Al Dickey and Pushaw Lake resident Scott Phillips, who is part of the Penobscot Indian Nation and works at Old Town Canoes and Kayaks. His children attend Old Town schools, he said.
“Why can’t Old Town be the next Freeport?” Phillips said. “If we build a outlet mall here, they’ll [shoppers from northern Maine and Canada] stop here instead of going there.”
“You can’t buy a spool of thread unless you go to Bangor,” Klitch said.
Old Town Code Enforcement Officer Dave Russell stopped by the meeting to hear what residents had to say. The approximately 6-acre former canoe factory site is zoned industrial, there is residential-business zoning on Brunswick Street and the Main Street side has commercial zoning, he said.
“It’s a blank slate, so I think this is a good step,” he said.
At the end of the meeting, a representative from each table talked about their ideas. Many were repetitive, with the name Trader Joe’s mentioned by half of the nine tables.
“Our next step is to digest the wealth of information we gathered here,” Pryor said of the seven-member Old Town Downtown Planning Committee and Wright-Pierce.
Those who could not attend Monday’s workshop can complete a questionnaire, available by download or at the town office, which must be returned to the city manager’s office by Dec. 1.
A presentation about draft plans will be made to the public in the spring.
“The only way to go from here is up,” May said.