Tulips bloom in an adopted garden plot in downtown Bangor on May 15, 2020. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

It wasn’t all that long ago that downtown Bangor was a sleepy, run-down part of the city, sparsely populated by businesses and residents, and dwarfed in both economic and social impact by the Bangor Mall area. From the mid-1970s to the early 2000s, downtown was akin to a ghost town, decimated by Urban Renewal and the exodus of businesses to the mall.

After a concerted effort over the past two decades by the city, business owners and property developers, however, downtown Bangor in 2022 is in a dramatically different place.

There are now more than 400 businesses employing thousands of people, and more than 3,000 people living in apartments and homes throughout downtown, many in buildings that have been redeveloped in just the past five years.

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And the downtown area has far outpaced the city as a whole in recent years in terms of property value growth, according to city and state figures. While the city of Bangor’s total assessed property value grew by about 17 percent between 2015 and 2022, the downtown area grew by more than 40 percent.

Beyond the numbers, however, the look and feel of downtown has changed as well. Restaurants bustle, with outdoor dining exploding in popularity during the pandemic. Newly renovated apartments are rented almost as soon as they hit the market. Live music fills bars and venues every weekend, from local bands to national artists at the Maine Savings Amphitheater. Public art adorns once-empty concrete walls, and flowers planted by downtown denizens add color and vibrancy to parts of the area that were once drab and uninviting.

Much of what Bangor had hoped for in its downtown all those years ago has come to pass. But the city is encountering a new set of challenges downtown following the growth.

A crunch for affordable housing has limited options for people of moderate means to live downtown. A crunch for workers — particularly in the service industry — has complicated downtown businesses’ ability to find staff. A struggle to keep the downtown clean and inviting continues, as the city hasn’t expanded downtown services such as trash pickup. And the effects of the city’s growing unsheltered population are felt acutely downtown.

Tanya Emery, the city’s community and economic development director, compared the place downtown Bangor is in now with a business that has moved beyond the start-up phase, and is now a mid-stage company.

“Early on, you probably don’t have as much capital. You’re still learning. You’re getting people to believe in your product,” she said. “But at some point, you’ve done a lot of the work. You’ve gotten people excited about what it is you do. You run a mid-size company much differently than you do a start-up. And I think that’s where downtown Bangor is right now.”

An old vault door from the historic building at 2 Hammond St. is left in its place in front of an apartment door in the fully renovated building, which now offers eight high-end apartments in downtown Bangor. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

Now, it’s about maintaining what’s been built and addressing the newer challenges that have cropped up — ones that public and private stakeholders couldn’t have foreseen when they began laying the foundation for downtown growth.

“We’ve reached a certain kind of critical mass. So how do we seal the deal? What’s missing? What’s the next step?” said Betsy Lundy, director of the Downtown Bangor Partnership, the city-funded nonprofit organization that promotes and advances the vision for downtown Bangor. “It’s time to take a look at where we’ve been and where we are now, and what the future is going to look like.”

One of several steps the city is already taking is likely to be approved by the city council on Monday. At the business and economic development committee meeting last week, councilors approved a $55,000 increase to the Downtown Bangor Partnership’s budget, mainly to boost services downtown, such as trash pickup, and hire an additional part-time staff person to work on marketing and events.

Many of the issues that city governance and downtown businesses and residents list as concerns are ones that affect Bangor as a whole, like homelessness, an affordable housing shortage and a shortage of available workers — though each of those affect downtown a little bit differently than other parts of town.

Diners enjoy a warm evening outside at Paddy Murphy’s in downtown Bangor in June 2021. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

The struggle to recruit employees hits downtown particularly hard, given the fact that most businesses in the district are in the service industry, which has faced a nationwide challenge in maintaining staffing levels in kitchens and storefronts. The city hopes to help remedy some of that impact with a workforce development program it intends to launch in the next year, for which the city received $375,000 as part of the Working Cities Challenge program it participated in last year.

As for housing, the majority of new housing created downtown has been in the form of relatively high-priced rentals in old buildings that have undergone expensive renovations, many of which are out of reach for the average Bangor resident. At the same time, short-term rentals on sites like Airbnb and VRBO have increased, primarily in the downtown, further reducing accessibility. The city is contemplating regulations for short-term rentals, though progress on that front has stalled.

And homelessness continues to affect downtown in profound ways, from unsheltered individuals camping out in public parks, to litter, drug paraphernalia and human waste being left on street corners and in alcoves on a near-daily basis — all exacerbated by a tight housing market, the area’s persistent and deadly addiction crisis, and difficulties in connecting people with needed services.

Summer Allen, owner of Valentine Footwear on Main Street and a Downtown Bangor Partnership board member, understands the struggle between compassion for those less fortunate and wanting to maintain a clean and safe environment downtown. But she doesn’t particularly enjoy arriving at her business in the morning and regularly finding vomit or hypodermic needles outside her door.

“We just need more support from the city to improve the basic level of cleanliness and safety,” Allen said. “It’s a complicated issue, I know. But we have to address it.”

Bangor police along with homeless outreach workers and city officials visit the homeless encampment that has been growing along the Bangor Waterfront to offer resources and to inform them they need to vacate the area in October 2020. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

To that end, one of the things Lundy hopes to spend the partnership’s new, increased budget on is hiring more staff to pick up trash and interface with unsheltered individuals, particularly on the weekends, when downtown is at its busiest and when, presently, there’s no trash pickup.

In terms of making it easier for people to spend time downtown, the Downtown Bangor Partnership and City Council expect to reevaluate downtown parking rules in the next year, to potentially add timed parking on Saturdays, when downtown is busiest. Presently, timed parking ends at 5 p.m. on Fridays, meaning a handful of vehicles can occupy spaces for the entire weekend.

There’s also the potential to expand a popular program through which the city awards grants to help property owners fix up old building facades. And once the new transit center in Pickering Square is completed at the end of this year, there will finally be public restrooms downtown, as well as a brand new transit hub that Lundy hopes will encourage greater use of the bus system — potentially further shifting the emphasis away from cars.

“We’re experiencing growing pains,” Lundy said. “I don’t think anybody would say the work here is done. But the challenges we face now are different from the ones we faced 15, 20 years ago, when these policies were first drawn up.”

People walk past Norumbega Hall in downtown Bangor on Dec. 28, 2020. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

The new level of growth downtown comes at a unique point in history, as the slow fading of the pandemic has converged with the completion — or pending completion — of a host of infrastructure projects in recent years.

The pandemic did affect downtown Bangor, of course, especially in the early months — though not nearly as badly as it could have. A few downtown businesses closed during that two-year period, and many more experienced significant struggles during the pandemic’s early months when many were forced to temporarily shut their doors. But just as many new businesses opened, and the redevelopment of the upper floors of buildings into apartments continued.

That and the completion of several years-in-the-making city projects — like the overhauls of West Market Square, Merchants Plaza and Pickering Square, much needed water and sewer fixes, and the Bangor Waterfront sewage storage tank project — set the stage for the next phase of downtown’s revitalization.

“That’s why it’s so important for us to ask these questions. What do we want in the city? We have to make sure the actions we take every day and month and year align with that,” Allen said. “It’s time to reevaluate our priorities, so we keep the momentum going and adapt to the way things are now — instead of the way things were.”

Correction: An earlier version of this report contained incorrect information about how the Downtown Bangor Partnership plans to use a budget increase.

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Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.