When Aaron Rosen moved to Searsport in December 2021, everything seemed a bit barren, with the COVID-19 pandemic still raging and businesses in town mostly closed for the winter.
But just a few months later, Hey Sailor! opened on East Main Street downtown and Rosen saw Searsport begin to come alive.
“Opening that business was a tremendous amount of faith in where Searsport was headed,” Rosen said.
He and other business owners said the restaurant’s opening marked the beginning of a renaissance for downtown Searsport. It also gave Rosen more confidence when he opened the Parsonage Gallery on nearby Elm Street not long after.
In the last few years, Searsport has seen an influx in businesses opening, despite new challenges brought on including rising costs and inflation after the COVID-19 pandemic upset the status quo. It’s been a positive change for the small midcoast town.
“It’s exciting, our downtown is starting to come back alive, and it’s finding its way forward in spite of economic times,” Town Manager James Gillway said.
Searsport’s business ecosystem has grown by businesses relying on each other to succeed, Rosen said. From galleries and a bookstore to new dining options and a sweets shop with cookies and brownies to take home, Rosen said they all play a role in bringing people into the community.
Hey Sailor! owners Charlie Zorich and Kirk Linder bought the space that became their restaurant in 2019 and renovated it into an eye-catching, colorful downtown eatery that draws regular customers from miles away. It opened in February 2022.
expanding downtown searsport
The two restaurateurs, who also own The Hichborn in Stockton Springs, saw a real future in Searsport very early on and wanted to have an impact on a community that they felt was underserved.
“Brick and mortar restaurants create community,” Zorich said. “We see it as a good long term investment for our future.”
Elly Burnett, owner of Anodyne Book Shop, saw promise in the community too. She said Searsport was lacking a draw to downtown in recent years but now, she’s seeing more people walking around than ever.
“There’s a lot of interest in rebuilding Searsport’s sense of self,” Burnett said. “Having new businesses opening up is really helping with that.”
It’s a different Searsport than the one that Patrick and Celine Kelley opened the Coastal Cafe and Bakery in nine years ago. Back then, they chose the midcoast town because they wanted to be somewhere off the beaten path.
“Searsport always appreciated that we wanted to be here, and we didn’t want to change what was here,” Patrick Kelley said.
But it wasn’t easy. The Kelleys have seen plenty of businesses close down around them, and several more that came into town but didn’t last long. Their cafe has been one of the few constants throughout Searsport’s downtown transformation.
“We definitely wondered if we sunk our life savings into a losing proposition for a second,” Celine Kelley said.
Their cafe survived and has only been helped by the expanding business community.
After Hey Sailor! opened next door, Patrick Kelley said a lot of people saw the new space and were nostalgic about the cafe, so he saw a noticeable uptick in people stopping by to get a coffee while checking out the new restaurant.
Like many towns in Maine and across the country, Searsport’s economic troubles stemmed from the 2008 financial crisis. Homes were foreclosed on, businesses shuttered, and there was a real concern about the future, according to the town manager.
Anodyne Book Shop at 33 East Main St.
At its worst, two-thirds of the downtown storefronts were closed with anchor businesses shutting down or moving to Belfast. The hollowness downtown was exacerbated as some of Searsport’s historic buildings fell into disrepair, needing renovations before new businesses could even come in, Gillway said.
Now, of the approximately 15 downtown storefront locations on East Main Street, there are only three expected to be vacant by midsummer, Gillway said. Another two storefronts are being renovated in hopes of attracting new tenants as well.
Meanwhile, businesses are thriving.
Burnett opened in a newly renovated space and said locals are enthusiastic for the community events like book clubs and author visits she’s planning.
Zorich and Linder are going to more than double their restaurant space downtown with a planned raw bar and pizza kitchen expansion next door. They said the loyalty and support shown by locals and the town government gives them reason to be optimistic about the future, despite the challenges they faced when opening.
The Hichborn in stockton springs
“I believe in this community, I believe in the area, I believe in what we do,” Zorich said.
A big part of finding success both for their business and for others in town has been support not only from the community, but also from town officials who want to see the downtown area continue to recover, Zorich and Linder said.
The town has provided grants to improve the facades of several local businesses and created a long-form plan to revitalize the roadway and sidewalks in town that will finally come to fruition this year and next, Gillway said. He’s also optimistic about the larger projects that may come to Searsport in the future bringing more people to town like a potential wind por t and becoming an international port for cruise ships.
“It’s always challenging when you have growth,” Gillway said. “But growth will happen whether or not you embrace it.”
Rosen at the Parsonage Gallery said it’s important to remember that the economic future of Searsport and the midcoast as a whole goes much deeper than industrial development. He said the environment has always been essential to Searsport and serves as a draw for workers, tourists, and people looking to move to town.
“Things like the book shop or the sweets shop, they have just such a self-evident contribution to the quality of life of people who live here,” Rosen said. “Those are the kind of projects that really excite me.”