The city of Old Town may have to shed some of its mill town image and emphasize a more diverse community identity in order to secure a successful economic future.
Old Town drew shoppers from as far away as Aroostook County during its economic heyday in the mid-20th century, with businesses like The Strand Theater, Cutler’s Clothing and W.T. Grant that now only exist in photographs and people’s memories. But with the loss of businesses and industries — some due to the building of the Bangor Mall in the 1970s — instability at the mill and a couple of devastating fires, the city’s economy has declined over the past few decades.
But the hardscrabble city hasn’t conceded defeat, and its 21st-century leaders are exploring ideas for building it up again. Having a successful economic future could mean shedding some of its mill town image and emphasizing a more diverse community identity.
The most recent fire on Sept. 21, 2019, destroyed a major section of the city’s center, and before the community had a chance to recover, it was struck by another crisis just a few months later.
A MILL TOWN IN TRANSITION
The Old Town mill has been through many changes in its more than 100-year history.
Getting hit by the coronavirus pandemic in the wake of the 2019 fire felt like a “one-two punch” for E.J. Roach, the city’s director of economic and community development.
Any momentum the city had toward revitalizing downtown came to a halt while leaders shifted their focus to keeping people safe from the deadly coronavirus.
But even a pandemic didn’t stop the city from working on its future. The city conducted an informal community survey in mid-August to solicit ideas for redeveloping the downtown. The surveys were collected via email, in-person and online, Roach said.
Most of the 388 respondents said they want more things to do, like farmers markets, coffee shops or general stores. Seventy-two percent want to incorporate local history and culture into the revitalization of downtown.
Eighty-four percent said they want more municipal programs or assistance to attract new businesses to the area. People also said they wish to see development that takes advantage of the river, such as expanded walking and biking trails.
“We have a blank canvas across the street [where the buildings were destroyed],” Roach said. “I see it as an opportunity to shape Old Town.”
Community development doesn’t happen overnight, though there are signs of progress. Ten respondents to the downtown survey said they plan to open a business in the city, although they were not asked to specify what kind or when.
Old Town native Alex Gray, promoter for Waterfront Concerts, plans to open a new restaurant and music venue downtown next month that could be a catalyst for other businesses to invest in the city.
Roach, who lives in Old Town with his wife and three kids, said his personal goal is to make the city a place that his children would want to settle down in — a vision he thinks many people share.
“The [townspeople] want to make Old Town a better place to live, increase the quality of life [here],” he said. Mainers know that the state and its people have a unique advantage living in a place that is safe and surrounded by natural resources, he said.
“Old Town has that same philosophy.”
While the mill has played a significant role in the city’s economic development, the community has more to offer, Roach said.
“We’re starting to define ourselves — that we’re more than just a mill town,” he said.
‘Now you can’t buy a pair of socks on Main Street’
In the 1950s and ‘60s, downtown was a hub of business, and was a frequent destination for people as far away as Aroostook County to shop for Christmas and school, Old Town native Bill Osborne said.
“[We had] hardware stores and Davidson’s and Morin’s and all the clothing stores, and you know, a couple of grocery stores. I mean, there was a lot going on in Old Town,” Virginia Fortier, a former city councilor and member of the Old Town Museum Board, said in a film about the city’s history.
The film project, which Fortier conducted about 20 years ago with Jamie Moreira, former director of the Maine Folklife Center at the University of Maine, involved nearly a dozen interviews of local people who shared memories of Old Town. Fortier died in 2018 but the museum has retained a copy of the project.
“It was a combination of a lot of things that caused businesses to start to drift away from downtown,” Osborne said.
Downtown really changed when the Bangor Mall was built in the late 1970s, and people traveled the few extra miles to Bangor instead of shopping in Old Town. As Bangor grew, people from surrounding areas flocked there in search of work — especially those who had lost jobs when the Great Works mill temporarily shut down and other industries, like the two woolen mills and the Lily-Tulip pie plate factory, closed shop.
Businesses that moved out of town — taking jobs with them — also contributed to the downtown’s dwindling foot traffic. “When you had all these people working right here in town, it was easier for them to shop [here],” Osborne said.
While some companies, like Old Town Canoe and LaBree’s Bakery, stayed strong, they couldn’t protect the downtown from the changing times.
“You could get anything you wanted in Old Town,” Osborne said. “Now you can’t buy a pair of socks on Main Street.”
Old Town was a straight mill town when city councilor Stanley Peterson, a Belfast native, arrived in 1972. But the mill entered a downward spiral when Georgia Pacific left, he said.
The city’s unemployment rate rose from 4.6 to 6.5 percent in a nine-month period of 2006 — the year G-P closed for good, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Sometimes companies — especially those that went bankrupt — left behind a trail of debts, too. Old Town Fuel & Fiber, which closed in August 2014, owed the city more than $1 million in back taxes after shutting down, according to Bangor Daily News archives.
The mill followed a similar pattern until 2018, when a Hong-Kong based company brought the shuttered facility back to life.
Despite the mill’s instability and loss of other industries over time, Old Town’s total population has remained relatively steady over the past 20 years. The population decreased 5.3 percent between 2000 and 2018, according to U.S. Census data.
For some locals, this is an indication that people want to live in the city but a lack of job opportunities forces them to travel to neighboring areas.
Other significant events like fires and floods also hindered the downtown’s ability to grow.
In 1996, a fire gutted three historic downtown buildings thought to be erected at the turn of the century. Old Town City Hall was later constructed on the same land. Then the 2019 fire wiped out three buildings on the opposite side of Main Street.
Shortly before the 2019 fire, the city had plans to restore the facades of 12 buildings downtown with a $100,000 state grant, along with $25,000 of its own money. At least half of those funds were instead given to owners whose properties were destroyed or damaged by the flames.
The buildings damaged beyond repair were razed two months later, leaving a gaping hole in the heart of downtown.
“I’m sad to see the old buildings in downtown being removed,” Peterson said as he watched the damaged buildings come down. “The town’s never going to be the same … But it’s an incredible opportunity for us to modernize downtown Old Town.”
Old Town native Lee Jackson— who served on the RSU 34 School Board at just 19 years old — said that the city has the chance to capitalize on its current situation.
He wants to see the city encourage out-of-state people to move to Old Town by advertising it as a safe place to live and work remotely during the pandemic.
Despite its economic challenges, Old Town retains potential to grow, he said. “Every crisis is filled with two things: danger and opportunity.”