City of Surprises
Most visitors only glimpse Bath, the City of Ships, as they zip past on Route 1. If only they knew what they were missing.
- Photography by: Mark Fleming
Bath, perhaps more than any other Maine city, proves what can happen when you assume too much.
Don’t assume from the four-hundred-foot tall, 220-ton crane you see from the Route 1 that this is some gritty industry town. The stunning Federal, Greek Revival, and Victorian homes on Washington and High streets prove otherwise. And even in the depths of the recession, there is just a single vacancy among the forty-eight storefronts on Front Street, Bath’s main boulevard. Is this vibrancy a testament to the success of free-market economics? Hardly. Such prosperity is a direct result of the vision and support that the landlords, urban planners, and local entrepreneurs have put into handcrafting this dynamic commercial mix. And though Bath is almost surely one of the most industrialized cities in Maine, it’s also home to a revitalized Kennebec River where leaping, eight hundred-pound Atlantic sturgeon dramatically demonstrate that heavy machinery and Mother Nature can coexist.
The only thing, in fact, that you might rightly assume about this city of nine thousand souls is that no single label can appropriately be placed upon it. Yes, the City of Ships still maintains a strong connection to its boatbuilding past through the Maine Maritime Museum. The daily impact that Bath Iron Works, too, has on the city can’t be overstated. But today Bath has come to mean so much more. The vibrancy of this nine-square-mile city has become the pride of residents here — and the envy of many other Maine communities. Last year Front Street was nominated as one of the American Planning Association’s ten “Great Streets” — an award it received in October. (Bath had already been named a “distinctive destination” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2005.) And the city is increasingly a draw for the millions of tourists who might normally keep heading farther down the coast. What they discover when they exit the Route 1 overpass — the “viaduct” in local parlance — is a city whose prosperity has always been tied to its residents’ refusal to allow themselves to be swept up in the currents, trends, and gimmicks that have led other communities down the road of boom and, almost inevitably, bust.
Bucking conventional wisdom is nothing new in Bath. After the Civil War, the city on the Kennebec was such a center of wooden shipbuilding that half of all Maine-built ships were launched here. But when the Age of Sail was drawing to a close at the end of the nineteenth century, Bath refused to slip into the darkness quietly like so many other shipbuilding communities whose yards were turning into sawdust. Instead, local people like Thomas W. Hyde adapted to the transition from wood to steel and began constructing metal military destroyers, frigates, passenger ships, and yachts. This conversion saw his company, which he incorporated as Bath Iron Works (BIW) in 1884, through two world wars. Today BIW, now a division of General Dynamics, is Maine’s largest private employer, running three daily shifts comprising some 5,640 employees (about 9 percent of them Bath residents). It is also Bath’s largest taxpayer, contributing $4,284,741 million to city coffers — more than a quarter of the overall tax base.
Perhaps Bath’s biggest, and most important, refusal to follow the fad of the day came in the 1960s, when the promises of urban renewal rolled across the country, practically leveling entire historic downtowns. In Bath, small business owners and local community leaders overcame City Council and BIW support of the urban renewal plan and steered the community toward preservation instead of modernization. “Bath has had a long history of ups and downs, and of people who step forward to take a leadership role,” remarks Jane Palmer, who was a member of the wave of new entrepreneurs who moved to Bath in the early 1980s, attracted by the opportunity the relatively untouched downtown afforded. The presence today of so many historic buildings in a concentrated area has become Bath’s greatest calling card.
Unfortunately, the automobile didn’t stop its assault on Bath with urban renewal. The construction in 1977 of the Bath Shopping Center on the west side of town, as well as the new malls at Cook’s Corner in Brunswick, again threatened the prosperity of the core downtown. The creation of a Downtown Merchants Association in 1992 was a critical step in competing with the threat of such sprawling shopping centers. Within a half-dozen years this all-volunteer group found itself inundated with requests for help in marketing and growing local businesses. The association’s meager four-thousand-dollar budget simply couldn’t handle the demand.
Organizers, including Palmer, sought assistance from the national Main Street Program, which aims to preserve historic downtowns by boosting economic activity in them. The match proved to be a good one. In 2001 Bath became the first Maine city to join the program, which is operated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Today Main Street Bath, led by Executive Director Jennifer Geiger and utilizing a hundred thousand dollar budget, works hand-in-hand with city government leaders on everything from building benches and flowerboxes to organizing committees that evaluate the downtown’s economic diversity.
Geiger says she signed on with Main Street Bath because she believes the city is in a similar situation to the one she found when she moved here in 1981. “I saw Bath once again coming to this point of growth, and I thought that I wanted to be a part of it,” she says. “The city has good bones, and they’ve been well taken care of.” This year Geiger’s group will, for the first time, operate the visitor’s center in the newly restored train station tucked alongside the viaduct between BIW and downtown.
The community involvement that led to the formation of Main Street Bath — Jane Palmer calls it a “three-legged stool” consisting of the business community, city government, and the residential community — continues to drive everything happening here. For Jim Upham, the city’s planning director, that means constantly evaluating what concrete plans he can put in place to keep customers circulating among the core downtown streets: Lambard, Centre, Commercial, and Front. “We understand that the most important thing about Bath, the only thing that makes us unique, is the downtown,” Upham says. “So we always need to have the downtown’s health in the back of our mind in everything we do.”
Even decisions about how to make the chain-link fence that divides Route 1 on the west side of town less foreboding — “It looks like you’re entering Saugus [Massachusetts],” Upham complains — are made with an eye toward the downtown. Neighborhoods, too, are always considered as a part of the downtown mix. Palmer notes the conversion of multi-family homes back to single-family dwellings on the streets bordering downtown as proof of the symbiotic relationship. Upham points out that while Bath has lost population in the last few Census counts, the one demographic that has seen growth is forty-five-to-sixty-four-year-olds — people who value a walkable community.
Finally the Kennebec River, once viewed as little more than a trashcan but now clean, is today a growing part of the city’s attractions. A newly revamped Waterfront Park includes a boardwalk for fishing and benches for relaxing. Plans are also under way for another riverside park, on Commercial Street under the viaduct, to better link downtown with the visitor’s center. Businesses, too, have started embracing the river, with the new Hampton Inn on Front Street joining only the Kennebec Tavern & Marina in welcoming southbound drivers coming across the Sagadahoc Bridge from Woolwich or journeying up the Kennebec by boat.
In recent years, perhaps no one in Bath has been more central to the cultivation of the city’s unique economic mix than Jane Morse. Her family’s Sagadahock Real Estate Association owns eighteen downtown buildings, most of them on Front Street (the street includes thirty-one buildings total). Since 1993, Morse has managed her properties just as one might a shopping mall, carefully considering each proposed business within the larger context of Bath’s downtown. “We’re in a position, because we have so many spaces, where we can really pick and choose tenants,” Morse explains. “Is there someone who is already selling [a proposed] product? Because if so, they’re just going to kill each other. You also have to look at who can compete because they have maybe not just a unique product, but one that they’re going to present in a creative way.” Once she’s identified a good candidate for a space, Morse will do whatever it takes to help them succeed, whether it’s working on renovations or adjusting the terms of their lease.
Michael Quigg, who started Beale Street Barbeque with less than fifty thousand dollars, credits Morse’s support for his business’ initial success: “Sagadahock really got it going — they were an incubator for us.” In some instances, Morse has even helped tenants move from one downtown location to another when she thought the second spot would be more advantageous for them. “It’s important to me to have a good mix and balance of businesses in the downtown,” she says. “One of the things that keeps Bath the way it is, is there’s a community feeling and people do their shopping locally.” Bath has the inventory to back up Morse’s statement: five banks, a supermarket, drugstore, and the venerable Maine discount store Reny’s are all located within a three-block radius downtown, interspersed with restaurants, bars, and shops.
Even with such a well-balanced mix having taken shape in Bath over the past three decades, no one in town is naive enough to think that the future doesn’t hold challenges. The loss of the nearby Brunswick Naval Air Station, which during its heyday employed nearly five thousand people, can already be felt. And while Main Street Bath works to market the city as a destination in its own right, residents and business owners are aware of the danger of bringing in a new influx of visitors to a town that has had to accommodate comparatively few.
“To become a tourist destination is a little worrisome, so walking on both sides of that, being a year-round destination, is a tricky walk,” says Jane Palmer. BIW, viewed by some as both an eyesore and an attraction, has in recent years become a friendlier neighbor by offering trolley tours of the yard and has developed a closer relationship with Maine Maritime Museum. The presence of BIW shows up in subtle ways everywhere, from the pair of sixty-something men having lunch at Beale Street Barbeque, their military medal ribbons proudly affixed to their faded baseball caps, to the replica military booster paintings hanging in a downtown alleyway.
The elephant in the room during any conversation about Bath, of course, is the viaduct; Route 1 lays across the city from west to east like a giant pachyderm’s trunk. Efficient almost to a fault in whisking travelers through Bath, rather than into it, the viaduct hides the downtown from the view of eastbound drivers. They don’t know what they’ve missed until after they have been forced over the Sagadahoc Bridge. “I grew up in central Maine, and I’d never really been in Bath, even though I’d been to Popham [Beach], of course,” remarks Michael Quigg, who opened Beale Street Barbeque on Water Street in 1996. He says his experience is one shared by many midcoast travelers. “I don’t think we get a lot of people who just wander into Bath.”
A 2005 study by the Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT) determined that the fifty-one-year-old viaduct ought to be rebuilt when it reaches the end of its life in another decade or two, but Bath residents are hardly unanimous in their support of that plan. Some see it as the city’s salvation, moving the seasonal hordes through before they can form a logjam like the ones drivers experience in Wiscasset and Camden. Others believe MDOT’s efficiency is depriving merchants of tourist dollars, and the viaduct should be leveled. “I think it should be dynamited,” declares Halcyon Blake, owner of Halcyon Yarns, whose store and home is tucked practically underneath the viaduct. (This is telling, since virtually every proposal for the viaduct, from rebuilding it to removing it, involves demolishing Blake’s building.)
City Planning Director Jim Upham believes that the middle ground for Bath lies not in removing the viaduct and bringing it down to ground level — a project that he says would require an intersection the size of the one at Cook’s Corner in Brunswick in order to accommodate the dizzying maze of cross-streets — but in changing the view visitors have of Bath as they approach from the west. “It isn’t the viaduct that keeps people going on to Camden,” Upham says. “It’s what Route 1 looks like before the viaduct.” To that end he has proposed softening the divider between the north- and southbound lanes by planting trees, installing sculptures, and creating more of a boulevard feel to slow traffic and make exploring the historic downtown more enticing. Those improvements likely won’t bear fruit until 2012.
Whether or not Upham’s plans will solve Bath’s visibility problems remains to be seen, but his central idea — that people’s initial perception of Bath is what determines its reality — has merit. Those visitors who do find their way downtown are often surprised by the collection of unique businesses on Front and Centre streets, where the locally owned Café Creme coffee shop dishes out lattes in a spot where one might expect to see a Starbucks. Such uniqueness is not accidental, admits Jane Morse, Café Crème’s landlord. “I get tired of the homogenization of America,” she says. “You can go anywhere and get the same thing. I just don’t like that vision of America.”
What you won’t find anywhere else is such an intriguing mix of gorgeous residential neighborhoods and downtown vitality, plus natural escapes like Popham Beach and Reid State Park just a few minutes’ drive away. Bath is situated, both physically and philosophically, in front of a bright future. “With the people who are at the helm, and the people that are here right now, I can’t envision a future that is bad for Bath,” declares Beale Street’s Michael Quigg. “Camden and Boothbay and Bar Harbor are always going to have the ocean and the Maine experience that people envision, and Bath is always going to have to be different.”
If the past 229 years are any indication, being different shouldn’t be any problem for the City of Ships.
- Photography by: Mark Fleming