During a three-year trip across the country, Deb and James Fallows, writers for The Atlantic magazine, found many examples of cities making themselves great again. The Fallows found that these resurgent cities had many things in common — 11, to be precise.
This list of 11 items has particular resonance in Bangor, which has seen a lot of change in its downtown and along the waterfront in recent years. Bangor still faces challenges, particularly in the wake of regional mill closures, but it has many of the 11 elements the Fallows identify as signs a city will succeed.
Here’s how Bangor measures up against the Fallows’ list.
1. Partisan politics seem a distant concern. That doesn’t mean there are no disagreements in local government. But the focus at the local level is on what the city council can do to improve the city, whether it’s investing in downtown and Bangor’s neighborhoods or deciding whether to raise the minimum wage.
“We might not be able to impact things on as broad a scale as the federal government but we can actually effect some positive change,” Bangor City Councilor Ben Sprague said.
2. You can pick out the local patriots. In other words, who makes Bangor go? Stephen and Tabitha King could fit the bill. Through their philanthropic foundation, the Kings have improved the quality of life and vibrancy of Greater Bangor. They have supported renovations at the Bangor Public Library, construction of the pool at Hayford Park on Union Street and chipped in for heating assistance for low-income Mainers.
Of course, many local patriots who aren’t as high-profile as the Kings donate their time and money to improve the lives of Bangor residents and visitors to the city, Sprague said.
“We’ve always had people in Bangor who were willing to step up into leadership roles, from city councilors, members of the business community and private individuals,” Sprague said. “There is a great base of people in this community who care about the future of this city.”
3. Public-private partnerships are real. When people think about the recent revitalization in Bangor, many point to the city’s partnership with Waterfront Concerts, which has made Bangor an entertainment destination.
Public-private partnerships come in all sizes, and there are other smaller ways in which the city has worked with businesses to improve Bangor, Sprague said. The facade improvement grant program, for instance, helps businesses improve the exteriors of their buildings, he said.
The program has been credited with luring Verve, Harvest Moon Deli, 11 Central and a number of other businesses to downtown Bangor.
“I think the public-private partnerships is one thing the city has done well over time,” Sprague said.
4. People know the civic story. Bangor may no longer be the lumber capital of the world, but the last decade has brought a “mini-renaissance” to the city, inspiring people to look forward instead of back, Sprague said.
“In terms of a civic story, a lot of people bought into that and for good reason. Bangor had really turned a corner in terms of the creative economy, social life and things to do,” Sprague said. “The challenge for us now is how to continue that momentum.”
One way the city hopes to do that is with the Innovative Neighborhoods Initiative, the brainchild of City Council Chairman Sean Faircloth. The initiative aims to improve the livability of Bangor’s neighborhoods and energize residents to become involved in identifying solutions to problems facing individual neighborhoods and the entire city.
“There’s great progress that’s been made and a long way to go,” Faircloth said. “This is about taking those next steps.”
5. Cities primed for a resurgence have a downtown. With a fresh look to West Market Square, businesses setting up shop and an expanding nightlife, Bangor’s downtown has become a destination.
Downtown Bangor can also act as an initial point of contact for local college students to see what the city has to offer. In fact, the more opportunities students have to visit Bangor, the more likely they are to see it as an attractive place to settle, according to a 2015 study by a group of University of Maine political science students.
“There’s a vibrance and dynamism to downtown that is attractive and can potentially be a source of interest and a magnet for retaining young people,” said Robert Glover, a political scientist at the University of Maine.
6. There’s a research university in their backyard. The University of Maine is one of Bangor’s greatest resources, and one that is largely untapped. The university’s Foster Center for Innovation acts as an incubator of ideas and products that could become the next businesses to locate in Bangor.
Not only that, engineering students could be a resource for the city to help address engineering problems, and communications students could help with branding. Creating internship opportunities within the city is one way to draw on that resource. An internship experience could later factor into a student’s decision to stay in the area, Glover said.
According to the 2015 UMaine study, only 10 percent of students surveyed held an internship in Bangor but students who held an internship or worked in Bangor were twice as likely to stay in the area after graduation.
7. They are home to a community college. A community college, such as Eastern Maine Community College, acts as a bridge to good-paying technical jobs for people in transition in the workforce or who can’t afford to attend an university. For Bangor, this is another tool at its disposal to develop a skilled local workforce that’s attractive to businesses.
8. They have unusual schools. With its STEM Academy, Bangor High School fits the bill, Sprague said. High schoolers work with University of Maine professors on science-oriented research projects, giving Bangor a way to start workforce development before students enter college. And students’ work in the academy is getting recognition.
Paige Brown last month took home a first-place award at the Intel Science Talent Search Competition for her research project on improving water quality in Bangor’s streams.
While hard data may not be available, the level of experimentation the STEM Academy offers has attracted some families to the Bangor area, Sprague said.
9. Resurgent cities welcome immigrants. The Queen City can make immigrants a key to its success story. In 2011, immigrants started 28 percent of all new U.S. businesses, from local neighborhood shops to corporations, and they are twice as likely to start a new business as native-born citizens, according to a 2012 report by The Partnership for a New American Democracy.
Lowell, Massachusetts, which struggled with a shrinking population and weakening economy, is one example of a city that leveraged immigration into growth.
“We can retain more of our young people but at the end of the day, if we want to have a robust labor force, it’s going to involve people moving in from out of state and moving in from out of the country,” Glover said.
10. They have big plans. While the city has plans for its waterfront and downtown in the coming years, Bangor is missing a comprehensive plan and priorities for how the city as a whole will grow, Sprague said.
The lack of an elected mayor who can provide centralized leadership is one challenge Bangor faces when it comes to formulating long-term plans, according to Sprague.
“The one thing we struggle with at times is, how do we move the ball forward?” Sprague said. “It’s one thing to identify the challenges, but how we move forward on them is one of things that we need to think about as a city.”
11. They have craft breweries. If craft beer is a sign that a city will succeed, then Bangor need not worry. The Queen City may not boast as many breweries as Portland, but a beer scene is brewing right in Bangor’s backyard, with Sea Dog Brewing Co. and soon 2 Feet Brewing in Bangor; Geaghan’s Brewing, Blank Canvas Brewery and Mason’s Brewing Co. in Brewer; and Black Bear Brewery, Marsh Island Brewing and Orono Brewing Co. in Orono, among others.
A local craft beer boom may be more a hoppy byproduct of Bangor’s resurgence, but it is a sign of Bangor’s growing quality of place and that some of Fallows’ other building blocks are falling into place.
“It seems like a relatively minor thing but it’s also indicative of a lot of other trends,” Glover said. “The fact that we’re seeing it is a good thing.”