Rising Tide on the Penobscot
After a quarter-century of planning, Bangor’s new waterfront project is setting a new high-water mark of opportunity for local b
- By: Joshua F. Moore
Photograph Courtesy City of Bangor
Schematic Courtesy Shadley Associates
Anyone who has ever done a jigsaw puzzle has had the same experience. No matter if you have been toiling over one for hours, as long as you’re missing even a single piece, all that you see before you is a collection of odd, interlocking shapes. Connect that final piece, though, and everything comes together: Your labors suddenly turn into a mountain, lighthouse, or some other postcard-perfect scene.
In Bangor, that transformative puzzle piece has been the waterfront. Never mind the revitalization that has swept through downtown over the past two decades. Or the huge gambling complex that has reinvigorated city coffers even as it’s challenged notions of what types of businesses belong in Maine’s third-largest city (or even the state).
Forget the circa-1955 Bangor Auditorium and Civic Center, the subject of a contentious citywide referendum about the worth of replacing it. Each area has been an island of growth for Bangor, but finally, after a quarter-century of planning and hard work — not to mention $15 million in local, state, and federal funds — they are being linked together by thirty-six acres of gorgeous, public, multi-use green space that would make cities ten times Bangor’s size proud. Having turned its back on the Penobscot River for more than a century, the Queen City is once again recognizing that the waterfront represents a key to its future prosperity.
Wealth has never been especially long-lasting for Bangor. The lumber boom of the nineteenth century, which saw two hundred ships a day loading up with pulpwood at the city’s wharves, was followed by the devastating fire of 1911 that destroyed more than half the city. The downtown that was rebuilt accommodated retail businesses like the iconic Freese’s, the largest department store in Maine, instead of the mills and machine shops that had previously powered the city. Chain stores then drove out independents, including, eventually, Freese’s. Urban Renewal during the 1960s left a more indelible mark on Bangor than practically anywhere in Maine, clearing away many of the buildings that the great fire had not, including Union Station and even City Hall. The opening of the Bangor Mall in 1978 was yet another blow to the city’s character, as sale posters in downtown storefronts were soon replaced by “For Sale” placards and boarded-up windows. The body blows that the Queen City had sustained during the twentieth century seemed to have finally wound up into a knockout punch.
But some thirty years ago not everyone in Bangor was willing to count the city down for the count. Almost as soon as the Bangor Mall opened its doors, officials began a series of studies, plans, and workshops that focused on how the city might rebuild its identity. Focusing on the refurbishment of the core downtown — redeveloping the then-vacant Freese’s building was at the top of the list, as was cultivating green space along Kenduskeag Stream — was one priority. Planners also cast their gaze toward the waterfront, where the railyards had been growing increasingly quiet, the oil farms less visited, warehouses less frequently stocked. Though it was hardly a place one might consider taking the family for a Sunday stroll, let alone wander after dark, its proximity to downtown represented a unique opportunity.
“We noted that four out of five properties on Front Street were for sale,” says Rod McKay, director of Bangor’s Department of Community and Economic Development, whose office is lined with dozens of binders containing the scores of surveys and plans the city commissioned in the 1980s and 1990s. “Even though at that time the railroad pretty much blocked off access to the waterfront, we thought it looked like a good opportunity for us to develop.”
That first purchase, of $591,000 for waterfront land that included a former slipper factory, was made in 1988 using a combination of federal community block development grants and municipal funds. It set the tone for the city’s acquisition strategy that followed: relatively small purchases, carefully financed so as to never put the city too far in debt. In 1991, a check for $45,000 secured another lot beneath the Chamberlain Bridge. The following years saw the city acquire an oil-tank farm and a variety of coal sheds and shanties along the Penobscot River at Front Street. By 1995, the city of Bangor found itself the owner of six acres of waterfront property in all, from the Chamberlain Bridge at Union Street to Railroad Street.
And then the Maine Central Railroad property entered the picture. The thirty acres of switchyards and turntables stretched from the city’s new holdings at Railroad Street south to the Veterans Remembrance Bridge, which carries I-395 over the Penobscot River. Its purchase by the city in 1996 for $1,111,036 represented a bigger investment than all the other acquisitions combined, but McKay says city officials instantly recognized the property’s potential as a way to knit together the downtown and Bass Park, where the Bangor auditorium, civic center, and harness-racing track were located. “We suddenly ended up with a lot larger project than we’d envisioned, but the opportunity was too good to pass up,” he says, adding that all-told, Bangor’s holdings suddenly encompassed an uninterrupted mile of deep-water riverfront.
Land alone does not equal economic prosperity, though, especially when that property included industrial waste and a crumbling, wooden bulkhead that no mariner worth his salt wanted to tie up to. After yet another master plan and feasibility study was completed in 1998, the city attacked the bulkhead first, using a four million-dollar state grant to replace it with a modern concrete-and-metal structure. This stable berth was critical in attracting American Cruise Lines to Bangor, its hundred-passenger cruise ships representing the first such enterprise to tie up at the waterfront since the Katahdin stopped making its run to Bucksport in the early 1980s. Already, private investments had begun inching toward the waterfront area; the Certified Public Accounting firm of Berry, Dunn, McNeil & Parker had rehabbed a former mattress factory overlooking the newly acquired city property in 1988 and made it into its impressive corporate offices. Even closer to the river, in 1995 the Sea Dog restaurant built its brewery and restaurant on the city-owned site of the former slipper factory on Front Street, the first significant private enterprise on what would become Bangor’s resurgent waterfront.
Other infrastructure improvements along Front Street that followed included underground utilities and new lighting, fresh pavement and brick sidewalks, and the realignment of Railroad Street. Though these projects were not the kinds of investments that might draw crowds to the river in and of themselves, the quality materials used and top-notch craftsmanship spoke volumes about the value Bangor was placing on its waterfront. “Doing the first phase of the project well really set the standard for the rest of the project,” McKay says, pointing to the massive, inlaid compass rose that greets visitors at the foot of Railroad Street. “Starting out with high quality right away showed how we intended to approach the area.”
That first phase of construction also included extensive re-grading of the area alongside Railroad Street from Main Street (Route 1A) to the river into a natural, wide-open green space — just right for a concert, people thought. So in 2000 when city officials learned that the National Folk Festival was looking for a new venue for its next three-year run, they headed to Washington, D.C.
“Winning the Folk Festival was certainly the spark that ignited the waterfront project,” McKay says. “In 2002, it brought eighty thousand people to the waterfront, people who didn’t even know that Bangor had a waterfront.” The festival grew in each subsequent year, with an incredible 135,000 people converging on the city in 2004. When the national event moved on at the end of that year, the city created its own American Folk Festival — and 125,000 people showed up for it. Last year, a comparable number of people flocked to the waterfront festival to hear acts such as the Quebecois group Le Vent du Nord and the Holmes Brothers during the three-day affair. Even more amazing is the fact that the festival remains absolutely free, though organizers encourage each person attending to consider giving a ten-dollar donation.
The summer music calendar was rounded out last year by the city’s leasing the rights to stage performances at the riverside to Waterfront Concerts, a private company operated by Old Town native Alex Gray. With support from Hollywood Slots, in 2010 Gray attracted such big-name acts as Tim McGraw, Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Charlie Daniels Band, and Celtic Woman. This year’s lineup is equally impressive: Maine’s own Ray LaMontagne takes the stage on May 26, five-time vocalist of the year Toby Keith on July 9, and Grammy Award-winning country band Lady Antebellum on September 5. “Bangor is becoming a must-play for many artists,” says Gray, whose company has an exclusive agreement with the city to host musical acts at the waterfront (except for the folk festival and the KahBang festival in early August). “People in Maine still buy CDs, and they still follow their artists.
You won’t find a much bigger performer than Tim McGraw, and he spoke very highly of Maine. He likened it to being at home — he wasn’t hounded while he was here. We can’t roll out the red carpet in some ways, but for many artists being left alone, to just be who they are, is sometimes more important than a fancy dinner or something like that.”
Everyone in Bangor is well aware that it will take more than music on the waterfront to develop Bangor’s new identity and prosperity. That’s why the final, $4 million phase of the entire $15 million waterfront project, under way this summer and expected to last until 2013 at least, is in many ways the most crucial to the city’s economic success. The pathways that are being installed from Railroad Street to Dutton Street, site of the sprawling Hollywood Slots complex, will allow residents and visitors to explore virtually all of Bangor on foot or bicycle, rather than having to rely on their cars. Acres of green space are being graded and seeded this year, providing another wide-open space for Frisbee and picnics — all at the water’s edge.
“The waterfront is a real treasure for the city of Bangor,” says John Osborne, general manager of Hollywood Slots and chairman of the Bangor Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The improvements that have been made there have made the waterfront an attraction, whether it’s for someone who wants to just walk along the water, or to sit at the amphitheater that’s being used for concerts, or to take the pathways down to Hollywood Slots.”
Seeking to develop more private support for the waterfront, the city is marketing three waterfront lots on Front Street for commercial development, as well as a more significant parcel on Main Street that it hopes will draw a large hotel. And despite having its own 152-room luxury hotel, Hollywood Slots views such growth as positive, Osborne says. “We see all boats rising with the incoming tide, as the new arena and waterfront improvements will benefit from the new retail and commercial developments that I think will actually parallel the $138 million investment Hollywood Slots has made in this community.” The final pieces of Bangor’s puzzle are being set into place in the same methodical, pay-as-you-go manner that brought the waterfront to its current, impressive state.
“When I moved here in 1998, the waterfront was a muddy old construction area with nothing there,” says Jerry Whalen, vice president of business development at Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems and a former board member of the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce. “Since that time the city has spent a lot on developing it into a boat dock and a community park, and now it’s host to mid-sized cruise ships, to a concert series, and to people just out enjoying the summer and fall.” Whalen, who lives in nearby Hampden, counts himself among the latter group, saying that the waterfront has become a favorite walk for his family dog.
Whalen says the waterfront in Bangor has become key to promoting the area’s existing attractions — the Bangor Auditorium and Civic Center, Hollywood Slots, and the historic downtown — as “contiguous assets” instead of isolated outposts. “Having these contiguous assets will change the perception of what Bangor is as a host community for business, tourism, and for people looking for an active lifestyle,” Whalen says. “I go to business conferences in other parts of the country, and they will often attach evening events close by. If we are able to bring conferences here, having these contiguous assets will become a symbol of our lifestyle.”
The waterfront will likely become an increasingly vital part of the Bangor lifestyle in the years ahead as the city uses it to not just link the downtown with other parts of Bangor, but to unite young people and old, residents and tourists alike, says Niles Parker, director of the Maine Discovery Museum. (Incidentally, the museum is housed in the now-wonderfully renovated former Freese’s space.) Already the museum is leading exploration trips down to the Penobscot River, and Parker says he could easily see his programming becoming more intertwined with the waterfront, whether it’s through programs at the proposed waterfront water park or through some other partnership with the city. “The real success will come in how we connect the downtown and the waterfront physically and also programmatically,” he says. “Look at the open-air markets in Pickering Square [on Broad Street]; they physically connect people. One of the opportunities we have at the museum, just as they do at the Bangor History Museum, is how do we connect people outside to a sense of place.”
The real test of any project’s success, whether it’s a downtown revitalization program or a new land-use plan, is in how people relate to it on a day-to-day basis, and in that regard Bangor’s waterfront project is earning high marks. Parker, who witnessed the waterfront during its industrial heyday two decades ago, marvels at what it has become today. “I can’t imagine Bangor without it,” he says.
Much like the final piece in Bangor’s twenty-five-year-old puzzle, the waterfront has brought the entire Queen City into focus — and the scene that has emerged is a delightful one indeed.
- By: Joshua F. Moore