Cars stream down Water Street in Augusta on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023. The city's long-neglected downtown is now making a comeback. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

When professional skateboarder Tobias Parkhurst returned to Augusta in 2008 to work at his father’s glass business, he couldn’t find a nice, affordable apartment downtown.

Former professional skateboarder Tobias Parkhurst has been credited with sparking a revival in downtown Augusta. He co-owns Cushnoc Brewing among other businesses. Credit: Courtesy of Dave Dostie

So at 28 years old, he bought an inexpensive building and created an apartment upstairs, figuring a business rental downstairs could pay for his lodgings.

“I didn’t have any money and central Maine, at least at that time and to a certain extent now, is a much more accessible place for a guy like me to get into owning property,” he said. “I couldn’t have bought a condo in Portland for what I bought my first two buildings for.”

Parkhurst, along with his father, now own several buildings and businesses in the once-neglected downtown. He owns three apartment buildings and co-owns Cushnoc Brewing Co. and State Lunch, having recently sold the family glass business he had taken over.

He and other investors are key drivers in the revitalization of Maine’s capital city, long plagued by an emptying downtown and dramatic sprawl. Unlike other Maine cities and towns trying to reclaim their centers, much of the growth is happening organically rather than under an overarching plan.

Progress is being made in pushing Augusta toward the cusp of a downtown renaissance. But there still is a 20 percent first-floor retail vacancy rate, though a city official said that is the lowest rate in a generation here.

Augusta once had a hub of banks and retail stores, including a car parts shop and department stores such as D.W. Adams, centered on its shoe, textile and paper mills. The flight of businesses and stores out of the city’s center began in the 1950s, when new highways brought people to larger suburban homes and shopping centers.

Clockwise, from left: Augusta Fruit Co. was one of the many smaller shops on downtown Water Street in Augusta in 1938. It was at the location until 1961; Augusta Fruit Co. was one of the many smaller shops on downtown Water Street in Augusta in 1938. It was at the location until 1961; One of six First National Store locations in Augusta pictured here in 1938. It moved out of Water Street by 1945. Credit: Courtesy of the Kennebec Historical Society

Downtowns like Augusta lost their role as a regional center of retail, community and neighborhood as the banks and department stores that drew people together moved to the suburbs, Evan Richert, the former head of the State Planning Office and a retired municipal planner, said.

In the early 2000s, the tide began to reverse as a new generation of people formed households and wanted to be close to work, shops and entertainment.

“It’s a challenge, but downtowns are reinventing themselves as specialty service and retail areas, and as places to enhance the Maine experience,” he said. “The historic New England town is a brand, an identity that people see in their imaginations.”

One of the biggest changes to Augusta came in 2019, when Water Street was reverted to two-way traffic. It made businesses more accessible to visitors, Keith Luke, Augusta’s economic development director, said. Another turning point came five years ago when Cushnoc opened. 

Keith Luke, Augusta’s director of economic development, stands in front of a colorful mural on Commercial Street on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023. Luke thinks the art symbolizes his downtown’s rebirth because it’s on a once-neglected, formerly one-way, side street and now he frequently sees people taking joyful selfies in front of it. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Ten new restaurants have opened downtown in the last five years, Luke said. The city has used Tax Increment Financing funds to incentivize investors to develop upper floor apartments, which can be used to subsidize businesses and retail on the first floor. He said more than 100 market-rate apartments have been added in the last 10 years.

Private investors are spawning new businesses like Sand Hill Bagel, another Parkhurst business due to open in May in the remaining building of the former Edwards Manufacturing cotton mill just north of the downtown, and 25 apartments planned by the new owners of the Olde Federal Building, a 41,000-square foot granite building dating back to 1890.

The city has used the downtown TIF money in place since 2002 to finance the construction of the Dickman Street parking garage near a new county courthouse, create Market Square Park, improve street lighting, fund its participation in the national Main Street program and incentivize economic development, including the Sand Hill Bagel shop.

The TIF expires in 2029 and the city will need to update a downtown development plan starting in 2027. That plan could include improved sidewalks and lighting, Luke said.

Augusta also will receive a $1.7 million federal earmark to renovate the Colonial Theater into a multi-functional arts center that Luke said will become the center of the downtown arts and entertainment district. Parkhurst, who has also worked on that effort, said the theater will be a gamechanger for the downtown and community.

This combined photo shows, at left, the Colonial Theater as it was seen in 1938, before it ceased operations in 1969, and at right, how it appears currently. The building is scheduled for restoration into what is planned to be the center of Augusta’s downtown arts and entertainment district. Credit: Courtesy of the Kennebec Historical Society; Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Part of what makes Augusta’s revival work is its sense of community, said state Rep. William Bridgeo, who was the city manager for 23 years before retiring in 2021 and got elected last year as a Democrat. When he started as city manager, Augusta’s downtown had been largely hollowed out.

As needs grew, community members managed to raise millions of dollars for a new YMCA and high school, plus a major addition to the city’s Lithgow Library, which was built in 1896.

“In my early time as city manager the city was struggling with an identity crisis. It didn’t have much to offer,” he said. “But because of its strong community spirit it has been able to better deal with much-needed projects that really make it stand out as an attractive place to live, work and play.”

Augusta also has upgraded art throughout its streets. It won a $50,000 grant from T-Mobile to install 26 fiberglass sturgeon. It added murals downtown and brought in art exhibitions and events including one of the largest Halloween festivals in central Maine, said Michael Hall, executive director of the Augusta Downtown Alliance, part of the Main Street program.

Two people walk by Cushnoc Brewing on Water Street in Augusta on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023. The brewery opened more than five years ago as a major redevelopment and rehabilitation push was underway in the city’s long-neglected downtown. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN
Patrons enjoy a night out at Cushnoc Brewing in Augusta, one of the newer businesses that is helping revive the downtown. Credit: Courtesy of Dave Dostie

Plans also call for reconstructing the Cushnoc Trading Post, which was established by the Pilgrims in 1628 to trade furs with tribes, under a $207,000 grant to become a museum of indigenous history.

Nancy Smith, executive director of community revitalization business GrowSmart Maine, sees the town as being on the cusp of getting its heartbeat back. That is why it moved three years ago from neighboring Hallowell, long the dominant downtown in the Augusta area.

“One of the reasons we chose our location is that downtown was coming back to life,” she said.