Nancy Ketch, community development director for the town of Houlton, speaks to a group of business owners and entrepreneurs Monday evening meeting to resurrect Houlton's Downtown Renaissance Committee. Credit: Joseph Cyr / Houlton Pioneer Times

HOULTON, Maine — For decades, Houlton’s downtown was the very heart of the community, featuring a large variety of retail shops, restaurants and movie theaters to provide entertainment and socialization.

But a change took place in the late 1980s-early 1990s that saw development shift to U.S. Route 1, locally known as North Road, which has only gotten more prevalent over the years. North Road has direct access to Interstate 95.

Now a group of business owners and economic developers hope to bring Houlton’s downtown back to life.

About a dozen people gathered Monday evening at the Houlton Higher Education Center to discuss ways it could revitalize Houlton’s downtown and to reform the Downtown Renaissance Committee that has been on somewhat of a hiatus during the pandemic. It is part of the statewide Maine Downtown Center’s program, charged with helping towns reclaim their historic business hubs.

“There have been various iterations of the downtown committee over the years,” said Nancy Ketch, Houlton’s community development director. “What seems to happen is the group ebbs and flows, depending on who’s involved.”

Most recently, members of the Downtown Renaissance Committee have realized that the group must be more volunteer-driven and not rely solely on the town, the Greater Houlton Chamber of Commerce or the Southern Aroostook Development Corporation to make things happen.

“These are the people who should be deciding what they want done and how they would like things to happen,” Ketch said.

A revitalization project was completed in the 1980s, but that is 40 years in the past.

In 2019, the town became an affiliate of the Maine Downtown Center — a program of the Maine Development Foundation — and was awarded a grant to have a Revitalization Roadmap study done by an outside agency. The effort included a number of public meetings and compiled an analysis of Houlton’s needs and desires for its downtown.

Those findings were presented to the Town Council in December 2019. Recommendations included greater signage to direct people from Interstate 95 about a mile down the road to the downtown and to increase the town’s presence on the internet through social media platforms.

Among the more popular suggestions for businesses to lure to Houlton’s downtown were a bridal/formal wear store, bookstore, clothing store, convenience store, mid-level dining experience and a craft store.

A committee was created to see if any of the suggestions could be implemented, but then in 2020, COVID-19 struck, effectively killing any of the momentum that group had built.

“That brought us to a screeching halt,” Ketch said.

Ketch said she hopes the group can be resurrected and continue its work with the Maine Development Foundation to breathe new life into Houlton’s downtown.

Roxanne Bruce, owner of Shiretown Gaming, said she would like to see more events held downtown.

“We would love to see an event every month through spring, summer and fall,” Bruce said. “Ideally, we would like to see every shop downtown involved.”

She used the example of hosting a downtown event celebrating something like “Harry Potter’s birthday” with stores embracing the character theme.

Sue Tortello, a member of the Houlton Town Council and co-owner of Volumes Bookstore, cautioned the group on asking too much of its businesses.

“Something very important for us to keep in mind is being realistic,” Tortello said. “I don’t want to be a naysayer, but most of our businesses in town are mom and pop [stores], and at the end of the day, they are pretty well exhausted. It’s really important to find what is in this for them.”

The group plans to reconvene at 8 a.m. on the first Wednesday of each month to continue its discussion on ways to improve Houlton’s downtown.