When Freeport residents vacation and tell others where they are from, their town’s name might not be recognized, but there is one name that is.
“The next thing they have to say is ‘L.L. Bean,'” said Tawni Whitney, executive director of the Greater Freeport Chamber of Commerce.
The town of 8,737 people is known as a haven for shoppers, anchored by the outdoors retailer. But downturns caused by the pandemic and the popularity of online shopping are prompting the town to go back to its roots, when it had a town center that locals used to recreate and socialize in rather than avoid.
A few years ago, 2 million people used to come to town each year, but the number is half now, Whitney said, prompting the town to look at diversifying.
Freeport is one of many towns across Maine trying to revitalize its downtown by adding housing, event spaces and greenery. Nearby Gray is trying to reclaim its downtown, through which five major highways pass. Windham, North Yarmouth and Gorham also have efforts underway to better use their town assets.
At the heart of Freeport’s efforts is its downtown vision plan, approved by the Town Council in May and which will be honed down to about 20 specific projects by December. It is to become part of the town’s updated comprehensive plan now in progress. Funding will come from grants and other programs, but details have yet to be worked out.
The plan focuses on slowing traffic through Main Street, reusing parking lots as parks or other event spaces and adding housing, which is seen as key to attracting more businesses. Other areas of focus include repositioning the Freeport Village Station, making Mallet Drive part of the downtown and creating a square at Maine and West streets.
Currently, only 335 people live in the downtown area, which often is filled with tourists and shoppers. That’s something Town Council Chair Dan Piltch wants to see change, with plans to add housing for up to 1,500 people, including along Depot Street, which now has a lot of empty buildings and parking lots.
“Two years ago we all looked around and weren’t crazy about what we saw,” Piltch said at an informational meeting on the downtown vision plan on Tuesday morning. “We saw a Main Street that was dependent on retail outlets with a lot of empty storefronts and not a lot of local residents walking up and down the street.”
About one-third of the people at the seminar — attended by about 70 people in person and online — were not from Freeport but said they were there to learn from the town’s revitalization efforts.
Piltch and others involved in the Freeport plan, which will be implemented over the next five to 10 years, want to resurrect the New England tradition of building a strong village where people can walk safely and get to easily from their homes. The town hired Principle Group, a Boston-based planning and development firm that has also worked on projects in Gray, Newcastle, Lewiston and Scarborough.
Left: This 1950s postcard shows automobiles lining Freeport’s Main Street, where L.L.Bean’s retail store is surrounded by local businesses including a movie theater, department store, drug stores, grocery stores, variety stores and restaurants. Credit: Courtesy of Freeport Historical Society collections. Right: Shops at the Freeport Village Station were closed in the coronavirus shutdown of non-essential businesses in this April 21, 2020 file photo. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP
As Freeport evolved over the decades into a long Main Street populated mainly by commercial spaces, it became a “weak ecosystem,” said Russ Preston, founder of Principle Group. That became clear when stores were forced to shut down early in the pandemic, with some closing for good as the pandemic stretched on.
“It has too much of one thing, so if that thing starts to fail, the downtown might fail,” Preston said.
That wasn’t always the case, said Eric Smith, executive director of the Freeport Historical Society. The town was home to a mix of businesses and a healthy shoe manufacturing industry from the mid-1800s until the 1970s, when it declined and commercial buildings sprang up. L.L. Bean opened its first retail store on Main Street in 1917.
Smith said conversations about restoring the downtown have been brewing for some time in town because the retail environment has been changing for a long time. The change is something he welcomes.
“There are people who are very much of our Freeport community who have never lived here when the downtown wasn’t a space primarily for people from out of town rather than people that actually live here,” he said. “For the last several decades, during certain times of the year, downtown Freeport is not someplace that residents would go.”
There no longer is street parking through the downtown, but instead massive parking lots for retailers. Preston said parking and empty buildings need to be better managed and focus on the needs of residents.
The town’s plan would connect more side streets around Main Street to build a network of lanes and alleys that would disperse traffic around the downtown. Other possibilities would be to create a vertical vegetable farm combined with a parking lot downtown and an adjacent skate park.
“You need to use every square inch of land as productively as possible,” Preston said. “You need to look at spaces you already have and repurpose, re-energize them.”
Preston said a more sedate downtown without the summer bumper-to-bumper traffic or cars zipping through at 50 mph in the off season might be hard for some people to envision. But the town plan has taken into account suggestions by residents and city officials that could create a very different Freeport where people of all ages can walk safely.
“We started thinking about a universal street that has no curbs and people can jaywalk anywhere so cars are moving slow enough,” he said. “There’s places like this that are functioning all over Europe now and other parts of the US are starting to do this type of street design.”
Also key to the downtown plan is how it connects to the surrounding areas of Maine. That includes a Maine Department of Transportation project to replace the Merrill Road Interchange Bridge, also known as Desert Road, over Interstate 295 with a two-span bridge. It also includes attracting more people from farther away in the state and neighboring states via rail.
“We are thrilled about the project,” said Patricia Quinn, executive director of the quasi-governmental New England Passenger Rail Authority that oversees the Amtrak Downeaster. “We spent tens of millions of dollars to extend service here, but the ridership to and from Freeport wasn’t what people expected.”
She said the Downeaster has seen the most success among communities that have a lot to offer, and until now Freeport has been one-dimensional. More than 85 percent of the people who traveled on the Downeaster over the past 20 years have traveled to or from Boston.
She would like to see ridership diversify. That could include workers commuting from Freeport to Portland and people using the train to go to doctor’s appointments or to shop.
“We don’t only want to be the train that takes you to or from Boston, but the train that can take you within Maine,” she said.