The New Freeport
Maine's shopping destination reinvents itself once again
- By: Joshua F. Moore
Recession? What Recession?
New developments in Freeport prove the confidence this community has in retail.
Those who say Mainers are afraid of change must have never been to Freeport. From the rise and fall of almost a dozen shoe factories over the course of two centuries to the founding of L.L. Bean in 1912 and the transition of the town to an almost exclusively retail base in the 1980s and ’90s, this community of 8,300 souls has been transformed more times in the past half-century than almost any other in Maine. And it’s far from finished.
When it opens this month, the new $45-million Freeport Village Station development will represent several firsts for Freeport: its first covered, 550-space parking garage, its first “lifestyle” shopping center, and its first publicly funded but privately owned parking project. Thirty stores, including national chains like Nike and Calvin Klein, as well as smaller Maine shops like the Northport-based Maine Dog pet store and Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine Lobster Roll restaurant, will occupy the 120,000 square feet erected over a sloping hillside owned by L.L. Bean and used for many years as the site of its outlet store. In terms of total square footage, the 3.6-acre complex increases Freeport’s retail base by roughly 20 percent.
But the changes in Freeport aren’t confined to the plot bordered by Mill, Depot, and Bow streets. Across Route 1, L.L. Bean is in the process of gathering its various properties into a single pedestrian-oriented campus that builds on the company’s unique outdoors brand. Last year the company paid three hundred thousand dollars to buy the town’s easement on Morse Street, once the main vehicular access into the Bean lots, and the street will now be blocked off to cars, with pedestrians free to wander without worry between the flagship store and the building that recently housed the company’s factory outlet store (the outlet is now in Freeport Village Station). The old outlet store (which, in turn, was built to be the hunting and fishing store) will become home to L.L. Bean’s expanded housewares department. Traffic will now access the Bean parking lots through either Howard Place, near the Gap, or Justin’s Way, on the north side of the flagship store adjacent to the historic Jameson Tavern. Already home to Bean’s summer concert series, by next summer the campus will include ponds for canoe and kayak demonstrations, fly-casting, and other activities tied into the company’s product line.
Such dramatic changes to Freeport’s core — and no one will deny that L.L. Bean and the intersection of Main and Bow streets represent the core — are especially noteworthy in an economic climate that feels more like a nor’easter than a fair-weather system. “For Lease” signs are visible on Main Street even within sight of L.L. Bean, and a recent survey found an 8.3 percent vacancy rate in the village center and nearly double that farther out of town. But the plans for Village Station and the other new developments have been in the works for several years, and investors are confident the changes will only increase Freeport’s attraction as a New England destination. “Most of the leasing commitments were made prior to this economic scenario that we’re in, but also the long-term viability of Freeport as a destination has reassured the retailers,” remarks Janet Grady, who represents Berenson Associates, the developer of Freeport Village Station. More than 90 percent of the storefronts in the new development are already filled, says Grady.
Change has hardly been painless in Freeport. When the shoe factories began closing in the second half of the twentieth century, the future viability of the town was seriously in question. L.L. Bean’s success provided a bright spot, but was in turn countered by an arsonist’s match that took out a commercial block directly across the street from the flagship store in September 1981. Where a Five-and-Dime once stood, tableware company Dansk and, later, Patagonia and North Face moved into the new building erected at the corner of Bow and Main, in effect defining the town’s future direction. Meanwhile just a few doors down Main Street, George Denney installed his high-end Cole Haan shoe company store in the former Knights of Pythias Hall. Within a few years the native Freeporter had bought up three neighboring buildings, renovated them in a way that preserved their architectural integrity, and leased the spaces to retailers such as Anne Klein and Polo Ralph Lauren. “I created the image for what Freeport was going to look like, having buildings looking the way they did,” Denney boasts.
L.L. Bean’s purchase of the Eastland Shoe Company factory and buildings on Mill and Depot streets in 1980 — and then razing them to make way for an outlet center — cemented the town’s new retail-oriented direction. “That was when Freeport started to lose its town,” Denney says, adding quickly that locals were not blameless in determining the village’s future. “People would drive over to Brunswick and get something for a nickel cheaper. The stores that were here were barely surviving.”
While most in Freeport were willing to accept the impact the new stores were having — perhaps most jarring, an Abercrombie & Fitch store occupies the impressive brick, circa 1905 B.H. Bartol Library — in exchange for the taxes that they paid, they drew the line when a McDonald’s was proposed for an 1850s Greek Revival house just across the street from the Harraseeket Inn. Although the fast-food restaurant was eventually permitted to open, the restrictions put on it included using only subtle signage, a
concession virtually unheard of at other McDonald’s sites. “The McDonald’s debate has influenced the debate over business development ever since,” says Rod Regier, a custom instrument maker who served as chairman of the town council in 2004. When resident
sentiment seemed to be swinging toward resentment over the dominant role of retail in town, Regier conducted a study in 2002 that found businesses paid 40 percent of all property taxes collected, or roughly enough to run the town except for school expenses. (That number has declined slightly, to 35 percent, since the 2006 revaluation, according to Town Manager Dale Olmstead, Jr.)
Indeed, the fracas over the fast-food joint unified the Freeport business community in seeing the need for a concrete plan to guide their community through the other challenges that the ensuing years would bring. Over the years the Town Council, Freeport Merchants Association, and other community groups have created various strategic and comprehensive plans, the latest of which is the Freeport Vision 2010 Initiative, a plan commissioned in 2002. The 104-page document is especially striking because of how accurately it reflects the developments now taking place in town, whereas many such municipal plans often end up gathering dust on a town hall shelf. From the covered parking area at Freeport Village Station to the brick sidewalks that now extend farther north and south than they ever did, the work plan shows how precisely the entire community has followed in lock-step with the desires of the downtown businesses. Even a public funding mechanism for the new parking garage — funded by Tax Increment Financing, it’ll cost the town $16 million over about twenty years — is referenced in the plan.
At the center of every plan in Freeport, of course, just as it is at the physical center of town, is L.L. Bean, the wildly successful retailer that began with a pair of hunting boots. “Over the years it became real clear that simply living in the same town as L.L. Bean was a fortuitous choice,” remarks Steve Brown, who founded his Brown Goldsmiths
jewelry company with his wife, Judy, in 1969. “For the obvious reason that people come to town to shop there, but also because the business practices that L.L. Bean employs are models for all of us. They helped us become good citizens. They were like a great big brother.”
Other businesses have learned to build whole campaigns out of the promotions put on by Bean’s. Last November, for instance, the Freeport Merchants Association put together the first-ever “Girlfriends Getaway Weekend,” which packaged archery and fly-casting programs at L.L. Bean’s Outdoor Discovery School with discounts on B-and-Bs, massages, and other indulgences. “Once we realized we could get a host of activities at L.L. Bean, everyone else got on board. We even had the YMCA doing an extra Zumba class,” remarks Myra Hopkins, the association’s executive director. “It worked out to be a weekend of activity that was very beneficial for our businesses.”
Such coordination is critical if Freeport is to become a vacation destination instead of just a shopping destination. “Years ago Freeport was a tourist stop, a pass-through,” remarks George Denney. “Now it’s changing into a destination. Normally our shops shut down from about 6 p.m. on, but the Freeport Village Station project will be open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Freeport will have a lot more activity, because there will be something going on at night.”
L.L. Bean will only solidify its influence on Freeport’s future with the changes the company is putting into place this year. While the concert series draws thousands of locals and visitors alike, the proposed green space between the flagship store and the new homewares building will create a new “village green” for Freeport, according to Carolyn Beem, a spokeswoman for L.L. Bean. “We have a lot of activities that go on in that space currently, with the concert series and expos, and this provides an opportunity to have more community events, to have more of a green space in the middle of the village,” Beem says. “During the holiday, with a tree-lighting and activities like that, it’ll bring a center back to Freeport.” To alleviate traffic congestion caused by the closing of Morse Street, the town will install signs encouraging drivers to enter the Bean lots at Howard Place and Justin’s Way or else access the Freeport Village Station garage through West and Depot streets.
For the up to four million visitors expected to come to Freeport this year, the new developments in town will probably feel like a natural growth of the diverse shopping mecca they’ve come to expect. Though the larger, national chains dominate the retail landscape in the new Freeport Village Station as well as along much of Main Street, the smaller, independent stores have learned to use their neighbors as an asset. “Many of our businesses have taken Bean’s model and used it throughout their business,” remarks the Freeport Merchants Association’s Myra Hopkins. “We have a lot of privately owned and small businesses that are in the shadow of larger businesses.” Even Freeport Village Station builds on the architectural diversity that makes Freeport unique; viewed from Mill Street the complex reveals four distinct styles, from modern in the east to Victorian in the west and with the brick, foursquare circa-1888 Mallet Building smack in the middle (listed on the National Register, it had to be maintained in the development plan).
Residents, too, have come to see the changes as part of just another year in Freeport. Springtime means learning the particular back roads that will take you around bottlenecks like the inevitable one at Bow and Main streets, piano-maker Rod Regier says. “One of the many things you learn as a citizen of Freeport is traffic control,” Regier laughs. “There are hours and days when you just don’t go downtown.” But warm weather also means discovering the outdoor concerts, sidewalk cafés, and green spaces that have emerged since the snow melted. Leon Gorman Park, a nine-acre spot near the new Hilton Garden Inn, opened in 2007 and is just the latest example of L.L. Bean’s influence in town (it is named for Bean’s grandson and the company’s longtime president), as are the concerts that last year drew such headliners as Keb’ Mo’ and Richie Havens.
Still, not everyone in town is thrilled to see large-scale projects like Freeport Village Station and L.L. Bean’s campus plan. “It kind of cuts both ways, I guess,” says Christina White, executive director of the Freeport Historical Society. “There are some who are happy to see the growth and the activity, and there are some who say maybe enough is enough.”
But just as locals and tourists alike will grow accustomed to the new Freeport, those with the benefit of hindsight know never to get too used to the status quo. Already, the town is buzzing with talk of Amtrak extending its service from Portland to Freeport as soon as next year, bringing with it a dramatic new source of traffic and business. If the past is any indication, Freeport will be well positioned to take those changes in stride.
Freeport - By the Numbers
Total Area 25 square miles
Commercial Valuation $450,000,000
Residential Valuation $1,050,000,000
Mill rate 12.75
Municipal Expenses $7.9 million
- By: Joshua F. Moore