Brothers Tyson and Jason LaVerdiere were looking for a point midway between Portland and their extended family in Winslow to establish their new restaurant.
They settled on Lisbon, the Androscoggin County town about an hour’s drive north of Portland, and located near major highways that could bring customers to their upscale Flux Restaurant and Bar on Main Street, about 6 minutes from interstates 95 and 295. One of the busiest roads in the state, Route 196, runs through town from Brunswick to Lewiston.
“It’s very centralized,” Tyson LaVerdiere said. “You’re close to almost everywhere you want to be.”
That location and affordability compared with Portland and neighboring towns including Brunswick have landed Lisbon on Maine Life Real Estate’s top 10 list of Maine communities with the hottest home sales in 2021. The list includes the core cities of Portland, Bangor and Augusta and more far-flung locations like Naples and Belfast, showing that Maine’s housing boom is pushing further away from population centers and boosting small-town economies.
Lisbon, which includes the Lisbon Falls village, is a former textile and paper mill town known for its summer Moxie Festival and as the location for Stephen King’s “11.22.63” novel and TV miniseries adaptation. It is poised to follow in the footsteps of former mill towns including Westbrook and Biddeford by redeveloping, adding amenities and attracting new businesses, including its first craft brewery, a malt company and an aquaponic farm that uses fish waste as fertilizer to grow vegetables.
Last year it received federal grants to upgrade the facades of several downtown buildings, and it is now reviewing plans to redevelop the site of the former Worumbo Mill, a woolen mill on the bank of the Androscoggin River that was once the town’s largest employer. The mill was destroyed by fire in 1987 and demolished in 2016.
“Lisbon looked like an old mill town until the mill was torn down,” Cheryl Haggerty, owner of Haggerty Realty, said. “It used to loom over the downtown, but now the whole area is beautified.”
The town’s population rose 8 percent from 2010 to 2020 to 9,711, according to census data. Some 150 homes sold in Lisbon in 2021, up 14.5 percent over 2020, with a corresponding number of new transfer station permits and new sewer accounts.
Along with location, Lisbon also boasts a high quality of life, including recreational trails and outdoor amenities along with a reasonable proximity to regional employment, including Bath Iron Works, said Brett Richardson, Lisbon’s economic and community development director.
The outdoor activities include Beaver Park, the Papermill walking trail and close access to Maine’s interconnected snowmobile trail system. Lisbon is also home to the Maine Art Glass Studio, a museum with stained glass and insect specimens.
Those amenities are drawing more people like the LaVerdieres, whose restaurant’s success over the past four years convinced Christy Cain to open the town’s first brewery and tasting room last month.
“Flux proved you could put an upscale restaurant in a town without a lot of other things to draw people and it could be successful,” said Cain, who owns Olive Pit Brewing in Lisbon Falls.
Cain, who has her own home in the village and three apartments in the brewery building that “rented in seconds,” said the location is important to her because she wanted most people in the community to be able to walk to it. As a nod to the community, Olive Pit offers a Moxie-based porter beer.
Before moving to Lisbon Falls, Cain rented in Brunswick, but found buying a house there unaffordable. The median sales price for a home in Lisbon was $240,000 in 2021, up 12.4 percent from the previous year but still $100,000 lower than the median sales price in Brunswick. While home prices in Lisbon saw a hefty increase, they’re well below the statewide median sales price of $299,000 for a single-family home.
Affordability was a big factor for Nicholas O’Brien and his wife, who previously lived across the Androscoggin River in Durham but had also rented in Lewiston, Auburn and Portland. O’Brien, who works at Bates College, said he is seeing homes in his neighborhood that long had a single owner getting younger owners that are renovating them.
Emily Ruger, who bought a house last summer and previously lived in Portland, likes the friendliness of Lisbon.
“I got to know all my neighbors in a month,” said Ruger, who works as Bath’s economic development director.
Home buyers may be rethinking living in Lisbon because they can see that money is being invested in new housing stock and the downtown. The town was once seen as merely being on the way to Lewiston but has emerged as “the perfect spot for first-time homebuyers,” Rob Edgerley, a broker at Maine Life Real Estate, said.
Like other hot markets in Maine, Lisbon is seeing multiple offers on homes. Haggerty sold a house a few months ago that was listed at $269,000 to an out-of-state buyer for $350,000 cash. There were nine offers for the three-bedroom house on a half-acre.
Some of the rise in housing prices in Lisbon came from a handful of homes that sold for $700,000 or more. One had its own helipad and a 6-car garage and sits on 89 acres. The home, which belonged to former realtor Jerry Douglass, drew multiple offers the first day, said Bethany Douglass, Jerry’s daughter and a broker at his real estate firm.
She recalled that 15 years earlier, she and her father were sitting at the kitchen table when a stranger knocked on the door, asking how he could get a property like that. Her dad, who had not graduated from high school yet owned his own company, told him to “work hard and keep your goals.”
The winning cash bid came from that stranger, a local businessman.
“I thought it was going to be so tough to sell it because we’d all grown up there and it seemed like that was our place,” Douglass said. “But I love it that he is there.”