NORWAY, Maine — This western Maine town of just more than 5,000 people found an effective way to fight back when big box and national chain stores encroached nearby in the 1990s.
Norway has had to wage a thoughtful and persistent battle, including bouncing back from an 1894 fire that consumed most of its core, that has given the historic Oxford County locale a bustling half-mile downtown with 34 boutique retailers and only one vacancy.
“When Walmart came in, it just wiped down Main Street,” Scott Berk, president of the Norway Downtown revitalization group and owner of Cafe Nomad, said regarding the supercenter’s arrival in nearby Oxford in 1994. “It happened to so many towns. You end up needing to find more niche businesses that aren’t competing directly with the Walmarts and Amazons of the world, where people want to come in and have a conversation with the owner.”
Norway, a one-hour drive from Augusta, Portland, the coast and North Conway, New Hampshire, differs from many other Maine towns because it retained its downtown instead of giving in to sprawl, Berk said. It has a bookstore, post office, restaurants, churches, a hospital and school, all of which attract people to a centralized area. Meanwhile other Maine town centers, including in Gray, Freeport and Scarborough, followed trends of the 1980s and 1990s and allowed expanded highways or national retail outlets. Many of those places are now trying to reclaim their downtowns.
“Norway is a self-sustaining kind of downtown,” said Dennis Gray, a member of the Norway Planning Board. “When I first moved here in the 1970s, I could get just about everything that I needed on Main Street.”
The town also benefits from its historic preservation, which Berk said attracts visitors. The downtown historic district is on the National Register of Historic Places. The residents are so keen on preservation that various parties got behind an effort to save the so-called Gingerbread House, an ornate Victorian-era home built in 1855, by moving it 950 feet around the corner in 2011.
A key part of Norway’s success in drawing new businesses and residents is the volunteer-run Norway Downtown group, which is a Maine Main Street program affiliate. That commits it to following a national four-point approach to revitalization that encompasses organization, design, promotions and economic growth.
Additionally, the town and Maine Department of Transportation have commissioned a nine-month study starting in January that will examine safety and infrastructure improvements.
That will include the possible replacement of aging water and sewer lines, removing or relocating the overhead power lines that traverse the street, and parking alternatives. The entire project could cost upwards of $1 million and requires a town vote, Town Manager Dennis Lajoie said. Some 80 percent of the funding would come from the federal government and the rest from the town.
Lajoie said safety and walkability are key concerns, as the town has 10,000 vehicles per day passing through, half of which are trucks.
“The speed limit is 25 mph, so we’re looking at how to slow trucks down and get them through safely,” he said. “We also are looking at the best place to locate crossings.”
The town’s vision statement said it expects moderate population growth over the next 10 years. Its population was up 63 people from 2010 to 2020, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. In the past year it has gone up 53 people. The data accounts for migration, births and deaths. Lajoie also expects more stores and housing, because both are in short supply right now.
Berk is a key figure who sparked the wave of new storefronts in Norway’s downtown. In 2003, when he was looking for a home for his cafe, he saw two women picking up trash as they walked past empty storefronts and transient businesses.
“It clearly wasn’t their job, so I stopped and talked to them,” Berk said.
The conversation spawned a retail renaissance in the downtown over the past decade, with Berk taken by how much the women cared about their town. The women — Andrea Burns and Brenda Melhus — both were active in organizations trying to reenergize the area.
Berk decided to locate Cafe Nomad in Norway. Many of the locally owned retail stores that populate Norway’s Main Street today followed, including Norway Brewing, which Melhus co-owns with her son and daughter-in-law.
The town has a history of creative and hand-built businesses. Norway, incorporated in 1797, was one of the largest snowshoe producers in the United States in the early 1900s with the Snocraft brand, later purchased by Tubbs. Other large industries included dowel-maker C.B. Cummings, which had been the town’s largest employer and closed in 2002.
Today, the town still has large businesses including New Balance, Norway Savings’ operations center and Stephens Memorial Hospital, the latter two located on Main Street.
Main Street has turned into an eclectic assortment of specialty stores and restaurants, including Fiber & Vine, a knitting and wine shop, and Dolce Amici Gelato & Cocktails, one of its newest businesses. Longer term businesses, including the Tribune Books & Gifts, also are downtown.
It’s that mix of businesses, and the historic buildings they are in, that attracts visitors and locals alike, said Kimberly Hamlin, co-owner of Fiber & Vine, located on the first floor of the partially restored Norway Opera House. Hamlin, a native of nearby South Paris, returned to the area from Brooklyn, New York, and started her business almost 10 years ago.
“People don’t want this type of store to close,” said Hamlin, most of whose customers are from the area. “There’s an authenticity here that comes from people really caring about each other and their neighbors.”
Samantha Masabny, who moved her family to Norway a little over a year ago and started The Woods lake, camp and home apparel and gear store, said she visited the town about eight years ago and fell in love with it. They found a cooperative business community that was welcoming, and have since started the store, an online business and a rental guest house.
“It was like Cheers. You would walk in, and everybody knows your name,” she said. “We came up during mud season, and it was still beautiful.”
Still, the town has the dubious distinction of having two of its buildings on Main Street, the Norway Opera House and the adjacent Odd Fellows Block, named “most endangered” buildings by Maine Preservation in 2003 and 2019, respectively.
The Opera House, which had roof leaks, broken roof trusses and a partial brick wall failure, has been rehabbed on the first floor, which houses several businesses. A preservation group is trying to raise money to update the upper floors, which could house a concert hall.
The Odd Fellows Block has a new owner who plans to turn the building into 14, one-bedroom rentals. That project is still in the permitting process.
Melhus is happy about the changes in town, and said she has stopped shopping at the big box stores.
“If I can’t get it on Main Street, I don’t need it,” she said.