This week will mark two years since a fire ripped through the heart of downtown Old Town late on a Saturday night.
There’s still a hole in the section of downtown that the fire hit. But new businesses have come to the area, gradually adding some vitality. There’s some progress in filling vacant spots. And a newly developed plan from the city focuses on boosting foot traffic and sprucing up downtown buildings to make the area more inviting.
“Over the past couple of years I have seen the resiliency of Old Town,” said E.J. Roach, Old Town’s economic development director. “Although the vacant lot across the street from City Hall is a daily reminder of the fire, we try to put that event in our rearview mirror and continue to move forward.”
Part of the city’s working plan for revitalizing the downtown includes helping business owners access facade grants so they can improve the look of their buildings and so the buildings will mesh with the aesthetic the city is looking to develop. The plan also focuses on using financial incentives to draw businesses in.
One major business development to hit downtown since the 2019 fire came in November 2020, when Alex Gray, president of Waterfront Concerts, opened his restaurant and nightclub Kanu.
Gray had owned the Main Street building diagonally across from the properties devastated by the fire since 2017 and was steadily working toward opening its doors, he said.
Although opening during a pandemic may not have been “the smartest idea,” he said business has been good. In addition, Gray said, the city has made it easier to operate.
“They’re just fantastic — everything from permitting, to licensing…to talking about creating methods trying to generate more traffic downtown,” Gray said. “All of those things are steps in the right direction for the downtown corridor.”
An art gallery and a shop that sells Maine-made items and work from Native American artists are also new additions to downtown.
In January, Matt Smolinsky of Orono bought the building that houses 278-282 Main Street, one of the last buildings standing after the fire ripped through the block.
The former home of the Penobscot Times, which closed its Old Town office in December 2020 to relocate to the BDN’s headquarters in Bangor, has two retail spots in the front and a few apartments above.
The Minor Gallery, which showcases Smolinsky’s art as well as works from other artists, occupies one of those spots. Kin, the store with Maine-made items, occupies the other.
Smolinsky wanted to be in a downtown area, which is what drew him to Old Town, he said. While business isn’t booming and the downtown isn’t the busiest one in the region, the city has been a great resource and shown commitment to attracting and retaining new businesses like his, he said.
“One thing I can say: Compared to artists I know all over the country that are trying to do the same thing as me — opening a gallery — they talk about all this red tape,” Smolinsky said. “I feel incredibly fortunate that all of Old Town has been open-armed, quick with anything I’ve needed. I feel the love.”
Next door at Kin, which opened in July, co-owner Meaghan Pehrson Martin said business has gone well and that more and more people are stopping in.
“We’re starting to see people walking around downtown Old Town again, which I was super excited about since I wasn’t expecting that,” she said. “It just seems like the start of downtown being a place people want to go.”
A new restaurant is expected to open in the coming months at the former location of Yamas Bar and Grill, on the block affected by the fire, Roach said. And the Sewall building on the corner of Center and Main streets has also been sold, he said.
Despite some new activity, not all businesses from the block of downtown that burned have returned. But one business that pulled through is Cutting Edge salon, which only missed a week of business after the fire, owner Lisa Burton said.
Burton’s salon was located at 272 Main St. for 26 years. After the fire she quickly found a space to rent nearby, where the salon has been for the last two years. More recently, Burton has moved into a new section of downtown, recently purchasing a building across from the former Boomhouse restaurant, a little ways up the Penobscot River on Main Street.
The city’s downtown redevelopment plan pays particular attention to this area of Main Street. One effort has involved creating a “pop-up shop village” in one of Old Town’s vacant lots.
So far, three temporary shops, including an ice cream stand, have moved in, Roach said.
And at the former Boomhouse location, the building owner is negotiating a lease with a restaurant that plans to open in 2022, Roach said.
“We continue to work with downtown property owners to renovate vacant and underutilized space,” Roach said. “And we need to continue to work with and support our existing businesses while building relationships with potential new businesses with the goal of expanding or starting a business here in Old Town.”