This "Old Town Strong" sign was set up in the newly-empty lot after a massive fire demolished part of the downtown area in September 2019. Credit: Nina Mahaleris | BDN

OLD TOWN, Maine — One year after a fire tore through downtown Old Town, devastating local shops and apartment buildings, the city is working to redevelop Main Street with the community’s help.

Late Saturday night on Sept. 21, 2019, the face of the city’s downtown changed when a fire broke out at 274 Main St. — a building that formerly housed Serenity Salon and Spa that also had apartments on the upper floors.

Nearby fire crews rushed to the area — some coming from as far as Holden and Hermon — to help tamp down the blaze that was quickly engulfing the adjoining buildings.

The fire expanded to several businesses along Main Street, including the Cutting Edge Salon and Simple Things & Sweets. At least seven people living in the upper-level apartments were displaced that night.

Officials watched two months later from inside City Hall across the street as three of the downtown’s devastated buildings were razed.

“Now it’s gone, and all the history with it,” then-City Council President Stan Peterson remarked to City Manager Bill Mayo as they watched the burned buildings at 272, 274 and 276 Main St. come down. “What a shame.”

Firefighters battle a blaze in a block of buildings in the heart of Old Town on Sept. 21, 2019. Credit: Courtesy of the City of Old Town

Investigators were unable to determine what caused the fire at the time. As of Sept. 14, the case was still under investigation, according to the state fire marshal’s office.

Businesses that weren’t destroyed in the fire were left with other problems.

While Yamas Bar and Grill at 268 Main St. wasn’t demolished, it had to be closed down due to significant fire and water damage that extended from the basement to the third floor.

It still hasn’t reopened in that location.

In late December 2019, the restaurant celebrated the opening of a new Yamas location in Orono. But co-owner Alexandra Rondo said plans to open the Mill Street restaurant in Orono had been underway long before the September fire.

Rondo said at the time that the restaurant still hoped to reopen at the original location in the future. “We will be opening back up,” she said. “I don’t want ¨¨[Old Town] to think we’ve forgotten about [them].”

The city has been steadily trying to redevelop the empty lots left in the fire’s wake by offering new locations for people who lost their businesses and seeking public feedback.

In October, the city offered owners who had lost their Main Street businesses a land-swap agreement that would give them an opportunity to redevelop a piece of land at the former Old Town Canoe Factory site — a 7-acre parcel on Middle Street that has been vacant for at least five years.

“We have a significant task helping businesses rebuild, and we have some vacant land up here,” said Economic Development Director E.J. Roach.

But due to the city’s zoning ordinances, owners had just one year to make a plan to rebuild their downtown lots or they risked losing part of the land. After the one-year deadline, lot owners can build on just 75 percent of the lot.

Despite the offer, some owners who had lost their Main Street businesses settled into new locations away from downtown.

Now, one year after the fire, an array of picnic tables line the gravel lots where local shops were once nestled in the heart of downtown — and the city is still searching for ways to redevelop the area.

“Our Downtown has looked different over the years. Our hope is that this look is temporary,” the city posted on Facebook July 22.

“Feel free to share what you would like to see developed in these vacant lots created by the 2019 fire,” the city wrote. In the comments, people offered various suggestions, envisioning new additions like a seasonal farmers market or space for food trucks.

The city also conducted a community survey throughout the summer asking residents what they think should be done with the area.

Roach is expected to present the survey’s results to the City Council at its Sept. 21 meeting — coincidentally, the one-year anniversary of the fire.