ELLSWORTH, Maine — Not long ago, the view of City Hall from the intersection of Franklin and Main streets was framed by empty downtown storefronts, the locked doors and dark windows a sign of the decline of small-town general merchandise retail stores across the country.
Today, Ellsworth’s downtown has managed to renew itself as a hub of activity, despite the occasional lingering empty storefront. But instead of drawing people in with mass-produced furniture, clothes or stationery, it’s luring them in with specialty foods, locally brewed beer, unusual merchandise, handcrafted items made in the area and entertainment.
“There’s just this resurgence. Ellsworth is kind of going through a renaissance,” Cara Romano, head of the downtown marketing organization Heart of Ellsworth, said earlier this month as she folded tissue paper into gift boxes at KoT, her homemade crafts and jewelry store on State Street. “[Downtown] is more about an experience than it is about things.”
The resurgence follows a trend of small-city Maine downtowns coming back — not as the shopping centers of the mid-20th century, but as cultural centers that appeal to customers looking for something they can’t find anyplace else.
In Ellsworth, several former downtown mainstays that sold everyday “things” have thrown in the towel, especially as national retail chains have moved to Ellsworth and online retailers have swallowed up a growing portion of day-to-day shopping.
The H.C. Austin furniture store shut down in 2009. The local Grasshopper Shop, which was owned by members of the same family that still runs Grasshopper shops in Rockland and Searsport, closed in 2015. J&B Atlantic, which sold furniture and other home decor in a space formerly occupied by J.J. Newberry — a national “five-and-dime” retail chain that folded in the 1990s — followed suit in 2016.
Some retail shops, many of them selling specialty items, continue to do business downtown, but the area has seen the most pronounced growth in food and beverage options. Some of those additions to downtown include Morton’s Moo homemade ice cream parlor, The Maine Grind coffee shop (now Flexit Cafe), burrito shop 86 This, Airline Brewing’s English-style pub, Finn’s Irish pub, and Indian and Sri Lankan restaurant Serendib.
The city over the years has made a point of maintaining and improving its downtown infrastructure, said David Cole, Ellsworth’s city manager. The city has redeveloped Knowlton Park, including the addition of a summer splash pad, and renovated the former Moore Elementary School on State Street into a community center. It’s also made improvements to the city marina and waterfront park on Water Street. Having recreational options and events downtown — which also is home to government and professional offices and the 80-year-old nonprofit Grand Auditorium theater — helps sustain foot traffic along Main Street, Cole said.
“It’s much more than just shopping,” he said. “It’s experiential, it’s cultural, it’s entertainment. It’s where people gather. Downtowns are coming back, but not as retail centers per se. It was general merchandising 40 years ago.”
‘The whole engine is really humming’
That city involvement in maintaining and promoting its Main Street matters, said Anne Ball, who oversees the Maine Downtown Center program for the Maine Development Center. Belfast, Gardiner, Rockland, Augusta, Biddeford and Skowhegan are among other Maine municipalities that have had success in reviving their downtowns by actively fostering relationships with downtown business groups, she said.
“These places are becoming destinations,” Ball said. “The whole engine is really humming in Ellsworth.”
Historic preservation, walkability and frequent events generally are important to any vibrant downtown, she said, though the exact formula usually varies slightly from one town to the next. Having an active social media presence helps, too, as does cooperation among businesses.
“If a community is focused on its downtown, people will want to come downtown,” she said.
Despite changes in the retail landscape, Ellsworth’s downtown is benefiting from the city’s already-strong position as a regional service center, according to city officials. The city, which has an estimated population of nearly 8,000 people, ranked first statewide in taxable retail sales per capita at $45,660 in 2015, the most recent year for which statistics are available, they said. Estimated average daily traffic counts over the past year ranged from around 12,000 vehicles per day in January to roughly twice that amount at mid-summer.
And a growing population and rental housing market translate into more potential downtown business customers, they added. The anticipated opening of The Jackson Laboratory’s new mouse vivarium near High Street, which is expected to bring 350 jobs to the city, could contribute to the potential customer pool.
In interviews, city officials and local merchants pointed to a few specific local developments in the past decade or so — and a handful of creative risk takers — that helped pave the way for the downtown’s transformation.
The opening of the Courthouse Gallery of art on Bridge Hill and the conversion of the former Masonic Lodge into The Maine Grind and small retail shops for local artisans, both of which occurred in 2006, are among them.
‘It just fits us’
Several people also specifically cited Linda and Ken Perrin’s decision in 2005 to buy an empty warehouse building on Pine Street, two blocks from Main Street, and to convert it into a new glass-blowing studio for their business, Atlantic Art Glass. The Perrins had been working out of a small garage in Hulls Cove on Mount Desert Island and were aching for more space in a location where they could draw people in. With the city’s encouragement, the Perrins looked at the 3,500-square-foot building and quickly saw the appeal of both the building and the neighborhood.
At the time, Linda Perrin said they wanted to be in a place that is growing culturally, where they could walk to The Grand for movies or plays, to local restaurants and to nearby shops for coffee and a loaf of freshly baked bread.
“I think it’s a quiet thing that’s happening in Ellsworth,” Perrin said in 2005. “It’s a beautiful building in a great spot. It just fits us.”
This past week, Perrin added that a big part of what made Ellsworth appealing, and still does, is its affordability — a point echoed by Romano, who with her husband bought the State Street building where KoT recently opened.
They each said they looked to Ellsworth because they could not afford to invest in, or even lease, commercial property on Mount Desert Island. Residential property values in many surrounding towns are also high, making the cost of renting an apartment or paying a mortgage in those places hard enough as it is.
“I think right now things [downtown] are really affordable for people who are starting out or people that are wanting to buy something,” said Romano, who lives in Bar Harbor. “My husband and I chose to invest here rather than on [MDI]. We can’t afford commercial property on the island.”
More than a dozen years after making the move, Perrin said much of what she and her spouse hoped for in Ellsworth has come true. For one, she said, they now have a large-enough local customer base that they no longer have to travel to trade shows around the country to pay their bills.
She credited Rich and Cary Hanson, who from 2002 through 2014 owned and operated the much-lauded but now-defunct Cleonice Mediterranean Bistro on Main Street, with demonstrating that the city’s downtown could support a locally conceived, creative, artisanal enterprise. The popularity of Cleonice gave the Perrins confidence that they could use the warehouse for their studio but also to draw people to community-oriented, collaborative art workshops hosted on site, she said.
That inspiration continued to spread in part through SevenArts, a small gallery that opened in 2008 in the Maine Grind building, where the Perrins and some other area craftspeople sell their wares. When the gallery opened, Perrin said, it caught the eye of other artists in the area.
“In my community of artisans, it was getting a lot of notice,” she said. “People said, ‘If they can do that, maybe I can do something as well.’”
Fogtown Brewing, a craft brewery downstairs from the Perrins’ studio that opened a year ago, is another example of how the city’s creative spark has continued to grow. Founders Jon Stein and Ian Heyse were looking for a big-enough space where they could make beer, host live music and run a year-round retail business.
Stein said that when they were looking for a place to open, they were drawn to Ellsworth’s “genuine small-town feel” and its proximity to Acadia National Park and the coast. They also like that Ellsworth is less affected by the peaks and valleys of the area’s tourist season than many other surrounding towns.
In Ellsworth, “we saw both an existing, vibrant year-round community and the need for more community development with a focus on music, art and a gathering space for conversation,” he said. “Once we decided on locating in Ellsworth, our only interest was in being downtown.”
They noticed the first floor of the Perrins’ building was unoccupied, and approached the couple about leasing it. The Perrins saw it as a perfect fit for their building and the community.
“Over 10 years or so, we’ve seen more younger people looking for how they’re going to make their own way,” Linda Perrin said. “They’ve looked at the examples around them and now they are giving it their best shot [in downtown Ellsworth]. It adds momentum for everybody, I think.”