Betting on Bangor
A lively downtown and a revitalized waterfront mark the Queen City's resurgence after decades of decline.
Five months later, she moved back to Bangor, and she has never regretted it. "Southern Maine was a job," explains McCarthy, sitting amid the semi-organized clutter of her American Folk Festival office in the recently renovated Norumbega Hall. "Bangor is a community."
After decades of struggle, the new century has found Bangor suddenly one of the busiest and, dare we say it, most vibrant cities in Maine. A downtown once infamous for its empty storefronts now has an occupancy rate over 90 percent, including the upper floors. Two new hotels are being built near the Bangor Mall, two cruise lines now make regular summer stops on the newly resurgent Penobscot River waterfront, the annual American Folk Festival attracts more than 150,000 visitors each August, and, for better or worse, Maine's only racino is building a $131-million hotel/restaurant/slot machine complex. It anchors a growing metropolitan area of more than 93,000 people. For the first time since urban renewal in the 1960s created acres of empty asphalt, Bangor has a parking problem.
The progress hasn't come without a cost. Bangor's crime rate spiked upward in 2006. Residential and commercial sprawl mark the city's northern and western borders. And Bangor faces the prospect of making major infrastructure improvements to keep the momentum going.
The biggest change, though, has been attitude. In the past, the city's official optimism felt a little forced, with a whistling-past-the-graveyard quality. Today, it's fair to say, there's even a bit of a swagger, combined with a sense of relief that a vision adopted more than twenty years ago and backed with sweat and money has paid off for the Queen City.
"We developed the feeling that we could do things that we once thought were outside the reach of a community like ours," observes Ed Barrett, Bangor's city manager since 1988. "It was a matter of building confidence through success. The folk festival is a good example."
In 2002 the National Folk Festival, a traveling celebration of American music and folk arts founded in 1934, chose Bangor as its new home for the next three years after more than a year of lobbying by the Greater Bangor Convention and Visitors Bureau. "The folk festival was something no one really thought would work," recalls city councilor and former mayor Richard D. Greene. "There was tremendous skepticism about it in some quarters."
"We were the smallest community ever to host the festival," Barrett points out, "and in the national organization's opinion we're one of their biggest successes." Barrett says the festival was the perfect way to reintroduce Bangor's residents and the rest of the state to the city's newly renovated waterfront, a former industrial wasteland that $15.5 million in city investment transformed into parks and marinas. In 2005, the national festival moved on to Richmond, Virginia, but Bangor successfully reinvented the event as the American Folk Festival, an annual musical celebration that for two days in August makes Bangor the largest city in Maine.
"There's been a realization that we really have a lot going for us," says McCarthy, the festival's executive director. "It's created a new perspective and a new excitement about Bangor. The folk festival is evidence of the changes generated by some very forward-thinking community leaders."
Bangor's decline is usually dated to the closure of Dow Air Force Base in 1968. The city lost five thousand residents between the 1960 and 1970 censuses. And in the late 1960s city fathers used federal urban renewal money to demolish every building between Main Street and the Penobscot River, destroying any hope of an Old Port-style renaissance in the downtown. (There's a persistent local story that then-President Richard Nixon flew over Bangor in the early 1970s and asked what disaster had devastated the heart of the city.) Shopping mall development on the west and north sides of Bangor finished off the retail giants that had anchored the city center, leaving the empty hulks of their stores looming over Main Street like beached ships on a concrete shore.
The city center was abandoned except for government offices, a few banks, and a small core of stubborn entrepreneurs who were convinced the old city had a future. A brief burst of private development efforts in the1980s ended mostly in failure. Private money was reluctant to take another stab at Bangor without some government support.
Barrett and others credit a changing of the civic guard in the late 1980s and early 1990s with setting the course toward the downtown's resurgence. Over the years, a four-part strategy evolved: keep traditional uses downtown, develop residential space on the upper floors of downtown buildings, keep the existing specialty stores, and bring in arts, culture, and entertainment opportunities.
"It was both big and little things," Barrett explains. "We tweaked the zoning to allow residential development - easy enough - but we also acquired the major downtown buildings that had been sitting empty for so many years and made it possible for them to be renovated and reused. We had a city council that was willing to take significant risks."
Federal grants and funding were used to create revolving loan funds and improve the downtown infrastructure. "We began making projects economically feasible for private enterprise that wouldn't have been without city assistance," explains Rod McKay, the city's longtime economic development director.
More important, the council continued to back the plan with $15 million over two decades, despite the usual politicking and change in names. "The council always understood that we needed to make those investments," says McKay.
"It was taking advantage of a blank slate," offers John Rohman, a principal in WBRC Architects and Engineers, arts enthusiast, and former city councilor and mayor who is universally credited with being a prime force behind the downtown resurgence. "We had a city council that was very visionary. They really dared to dream big. And the city staff had already done a lot of good hard work so the council could capitalize on the potential."
Rohman adds that the city also had the luxury of a healthy cash flow from the retail development taking place around the Bangor Mall - adding an element of irony in the move to redevelop the downtown and waterfront. "You could lower taxes, fill potholes, or make investments in downtown," he recalls. "We did all three, but with an emphasis on the investment."
Brad Ryder remembers the late 1990s as the Dark Years. "There were more empty storefronts than full ones in 1997, when we opened," says the owner of Epic Sports, an outdoor retailer that today occupies the old W.T. Grant department store at the corner of Central and Hammond. "The mall area was booming, and people weren't thinking about retail in the downtown. We were just in the early stages of a new beginning for this area. We were definitely taking a risk starting a new store here."
Today the store, with thirteen thousand square feet of display space across two levels, is a destination for canoeists, campers, and skiers all over central and northern Maine. Ryder credits much of the success to the city's reinvention of its center as a multi-purpose destination.
"I was really amused when the whole idea of the creative economy became such a big thing a few years ago," Ryder says. "John Rohman was talking about the impact of the arts and culture and making it happen long before that. Today we have two great museums, with a third [the Bangor Historical Society museum now under construction] on the way. We have bookstores and restaurants and bakeries. It's really a great place."
Over the past ten years, the Bangor Public Library has undergone a major expansion. The Maine Discovery Museum opened in the former Freese's department store building, and the University of Maine Museum of Art moved into Norumbega Hall. The University of Maine System moved its offices from the old air base to the Grant's building. The Penobscot Theatre renovated its space. More than five hundred apartments and condominiums went into upper floors all over the area. Irish pubs, Pakistani restaurants, and coffee caf`s followed.
"You've got a lot of things happening in Bangor now," Rohman observes. "There's a new changing of the guard that's opening up more opportunities. You look at the Breakfast Rotary meetings now, and these are not a bunch of gray hairs. In my office alone, we've grown to seventy-five people, and the average age is easily ten years younger than it was fifteen years ago. We have young people from Texas, Switzerland, Spain, all over the place."
"There's been kind of a renaissance up here," observes Cary Weston, a principal in Sutherland Weston Marketing and past chair of Fusion:Bangor, an organization designed to encourage and organize the city's burgeoning community of young professionals. Fusion:Bangor started almost four years ago when eight people met over beers at the Sea Dog Brewery to talk about creating networking and civic action opportunities for business people without gray hair. Today its meetings attract fifty to a hundred people, and it's one of eight similar groups in Maine, Weston says.
Weston acknowledges that Bangor might not be high on the list of possible homes for a newly minted college graduate. "Hey, I remember being twenty-two and not wanting to stay where I'd already been," he shrugs. "We welcome people leaving, because we know they'll come back and bring new experience and knowledge with them."
Ed Barrett likes to quip that "it's a lot farther from Portland to Bangor than it is from Bangor to Portland," a reference to the psychological distance at which most of southern Maine views the Queen City. "There are still some people who forget that the Interstate runs both ways and that we're barely an hour north of Augusta."
The perception that Bangor is somehow isolated in the wilderness of the North Woods is wildly incorrect but pervasive, and recent events such as Delta Airline's cutback in service at Bangor International Airport don't help. McCarthy says events such as the folk festival are helping to overcome southern Maine residents' reluctance to venture north of Waterville in much the same way the Common Ground Fair pulls city folk into the wilds of rural Waldo County.
Ironically, Bangor suffers from no such problem with Canadians from Qu`bec and New Brunswick who are once again swarming the stores and booking rooms in local motels to take advantage of the strong Canadian dollar. Some store owners joke that Bangor should adopt the loonie as its official currency.
Bangor isn't the city it once was. "Open mic nights, plays, symphony performances, live music across the spectrum, easy access to the outdoors, all kinds of retail businesses - you can pretty much find everything you want right here," McCarthy says. "I look around and see all kinds of new people, plus former Bangor residents moving back. They're finding Bangor is where they want to be."
The Big Gamble
One of the larger question marks hanging over Bangor is the impact of Hollywood Slots. The state's only racino currently operates out of temporary quarters in a former restaurant on Main Street just outside the downtown area, but across the street it is building a 116,000-square-foot gaming facility with 1,500 slot machines, a four-story parking garage able to hold up to 1,500 vehicles, and a 152-room hotel.
Detractors say the facility will actually hurt the city by luring residents and visitors away from other businesses. Supporters say the racino will draw new people from throughout New England and the Maritimes to Bangor to shop, eat, and stay overnight.
A spike in Bangor's crime rate - from 284.9 in 2005 to 325.9 in 2006 - reversed a four-year trend of low crime in the Queen City. Racino critics were quick to point the finger at the slot machines, but city manager Barrett notes that most of the increase came in property crimes. "We don't absolutely know the reason, but if I was forced to guess, it's probably the result of drug use," he offers. "We have more methadone clinics here [three] than any city in the state, and they serve addicts from all over northern and eastern Maine."
"The drug problem is everywhere," counters Dennis Bailey, of CasinosNO!, the statewide anti-slot machine organization, "and crime didn't go up like that in Lewiston or Auburn. I don't know why the crime rate in Bangor went up, but it's an undisputed fact that it's the highest increase of any city in Maine."
Bailey also questions how much Bangor will benefit from the racino traffic. "You can't argue that a little racino is going to bring in a lot of outside money and people. Most of their clientele will come from right around Bangor."
Hollywood slots spokeswoman Amy Kenney counters that the facility's marketing area is all of Maine, "with a special emphasis on southern Maine where most of the population is." She emphasizes that the racino is partnering with local restaurants and hotels who will offer discounts to racino customers, but she also acknowledges that the racino complex itself will offer a "large food and beverage component" as well as the hotel.
- By: Jeff Clark