The Bangor Drive-In, which is actually located in Hermon near the Bangor-line.

Steve Allen moved out of New Hampshire in 2007 after a nearby river flooded his mobile home. He was drawn to Carmel, just outside of Bangor, because of its cheap housing prices. He ended up paying $44,000 for a mobile home and a 2-acre parcel. He has lived there ever since.

“I’m more of a rural person, so I would not like to live in Bangor,” Allen, 76, said before he walked into Danforth’s Down Home Supermarket in Hermon. “Some areas are pretty densely populated.”

Allen’s choice is emblematic of population shifts that became clear earlier this month with the release of 2020 U.S. Census data. Bangor lost nearly 1,300 residents between 2010 and 2020, the largest numerical drop of any Maine community during that 10-year period.

Steve Allen, 76, of Carmel, stands in front of Danforths Down Home Supermarket, where he was shopping. Attracted by cheap land values, Allen moved to Carmel in 2007 after his New Hampshire home was flooded. Credit: David Marino Jr. / BDN

Yet many communities just outside of Bangor saw growth, with Hermon growing by more than 1,000 people, Orono adding more than 800 and Hampden adding more than 400. Carmel saw 73 people move in, giving it a population of nearly 2,900.

It comes down to a number of factors, including the higher cost of housing and property taxes in Bangor compared with many of its surrounding communities and the desire by many to live in a rural community, according to experts and interviews with area residents.

People would rather have open space than the compact housing more prevalent in Bangor, said Allen, who’s noticed the growth in his area. He has recently seen new houses being built where he lives along Five Road, outside of Carmel’s center off U.S. Route 2.

“People want to be more spread out,” Allen said.  

Even as Hermon continues to see an influx of people, Bangor remains five times more densely populated. A number of Bangor-area communities that saw growth have more open land and less dense population centers.

Bangor’s population loss doesn’t necessarily show that Bangor is in significant trouble, said Lee Umphrey, president and CEO of the Eastern Maine Development Corporation. Bangor remains a vital regional hub, but where people are choosing to live in Penobscot County has been changing.

Last part of Bangor before you enter Hermon. Credit: David Marino Jr. / BDN

With lower property tax rates and cheap housing, it was simply the case that neighboring communities have made themselves appealing while remaining a short drive from all the services provided by Bangor, Umphrey said.

In addition to people, a growing number of businesses trying to do business in Penobscot County have chosen to base themselves just outside of Bangor, he said

“It’s a little more competitive now and people’s definition of what a vibrant city is has maybe changed,” he said. “Bangor should take stock of that and think of ways to make the city appealing.”

City Council Chair Dan Tremble said he had been surprised by the numbers showing the size of Bangor’s population loss.

Housing in Bangor is unaffordable to many, he said, but that’s largely a result of a sizable portion of the city’s population living below the poverty line — 18.9 percent, according to census estimates, compared with 10.9 percent statewide — not necessarily high housing prices.

The Bangor-Hermon line across U.S. Route 2 on Friday. Credit: David Marino Jr. / BDN

The city has retained a steady tax rate and led the way locally in terms of services, he said. He noted that while Bangor hadn’t grown from 2010 to 2020, the population had increased from 2000 to 2020 (it went up by 300 people during that time).

The ultimate solution is to get better-paying jobs in the area from a more diverse set of industries, he said. The City Council’s Business and Economic Development Committee expects to study the census data in the next few months, he said.