When Gretchen Jaeger was growing up in Bath, in an apartment above her parents’ business, Halcyon Yarn, she couldn’t visualize her hometown accommodating the kind of creative life she longed for. “It felt a little sleepy,” Jaeger says.
After college in Vermont and stints in New York and Arizona, Jaeger returned to Bath in 2001 for what she imagined would be a temporary stay. But she quickly realized that Bath had the qualities she’d been searching the country for: a community of artists, a walkable downtown with beautiful architecture, and a group of locals — including her mom, Halcyon — who were working to build the city into a vibrant year-round destination for visitors, residents, and businesses.
“I was seeking that thousands of miles away,” the now-41-year-old says, “and it turned out that I’d been in it all along.”
So Jaeger stayed. She and her partner bought a 1920s Craftsman-style foursquare home a quarter-mile from the store, then bought Halcyon Yarn in 2015. Today, they’re renovating the upper floors for a co-working facility that includes shared space, private offices, meeting rooms, classrooms, and a marketing and media facility. Jaeger is board president of Main Street Bath, a nonprofit that partners with the city, area businesses, and community groups to preserve and promote the downtown.
Meanwhile, the face of the city is changing. In 2017, a Portland-based developer reopened Jaeger’s former elementary school as a 59-unit, mixed-income apartment building and plans a 55-and-up housing complex on a city-owned lot downtown, just blocks from a luxury condo development that opened last year on the Kennebec River. In December, the city’s public high school will reopen in a new $75 million building, and the city is studying options for redeveloping the 4½-acre former campus. City officials are awarding facade grants to help businesses fix up their exteriors, and plans are in the works for streetscape improvements and a new walking path along the river.
Bath’s demographics are changing too, and in some ways, the city is bucking statewide trends. Although the population shrank by 2 percent over the last decade, to 8,329, and although half of new homeowners are retirees, the city’s median age of 41 is younger than the statewide median of 44. The number of households with school-age kids is growing, and so is the number of households headed by people with college degrees and median incomes higher than the state average. All those trends bode well for the economic health of Bath’s downtown, says Sally Johnstone, Main Street Bath’s vice president and a consultant with the analytics firm Reach Advisors.
“Having a mix of life stages and household types supports a sustainable community for the long-term,” says Johnstone, 55, who moved to town from Virginia in 2007. “In a place like Bath, that diversity makes us a more lively and interesting community too.”
Residents and business owners say Bath has qualities that are hard to come by: quick access to Portland and the midcoast, jobs at major employers like Bath Iron Works and Bath Savings Bank, which also provide a steady flow of tax revenue, a critical mass of people in the city each day, and support for local community groups. Institutions like the Maine Maritime Museum and Chocolate Church Arts Center attract visitors year-round. Residents from surrounding towns like Arrowsic, Phippsburg, Woolwich, West Bath, and Georgetown pour into town regularly to shop, eat, and go to the library.
“So many communities are reaching to create what Bath already has,” says developer Sean Ireland, who bought and renovated three 19th-century buildings downtown, where Maine Street Design Co., Bath Brewing Company, and Union + Co. now operate. Many of the spaces at Union + Co. that Ireland is outfitted as private offices, artists’ studios, and co-working and meeting rooms had been empty for decades. Ireland, whose resume includes projects in Yarmouth and project management for Portland’s Press Hotel, is also developing a residential space above Maine Street Design Co.
“We have three generations wanting to live in the same city,” he says. “Bath has highly dense, mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly spaces that have a strong historic character, natural beauty, and proximity to a larger urban area.”
Developer Nathan Szanton points to less tangible factors.
“The city has such a strong social fabric,” says the president of the Szanton Company, which redeveloped Bath’s Huse Memorial School into apartments and now plans a 46-unit apartment complex for older adults. “There’s this tremendous sense of closeness. Bath has held on to its identity. It hasn’t just been homogenized into anywhere USA.”
To be sure, the city has its challenges. There are still empty storefronts. While many of the pre-Civil War homes have been meticulously restored, others need work. The Sagadahoc Bridge tends to whisk Route 1 drivers right past the city — if your curiosity is piqued by the spires of the Gothic Revival churches or BIW’s massive cranes, Bath may be in your rearview mirror before you have a chance to pull over for a look.
There’s also some wariness around town about gentrification and inviting the kind of changes that will alter the culture longtime residents treasure or even price them out. As in many Maine communities, it’s a tricky balance.
“One of the things that makes Bath unique is that we have such diversity in terms of income,” Bath City Council chair Mari Eosco says. “We want to make sure that everyone is a part of the community and no one feels left out. At the same time, we want to make sure that people who are coming in don’t feel like they’re not included because they haven’t been here for generations.”
The current hum of activity in Bath isn’t a renaissance exactly — its been gaining steam for decades. Like downtowns across the nation, Bath’s suffered in the 1970s when shopping centers sprang up on the outskirts of town. City leaders initially rejected proposals for urban renewal, but a merchants’ association formed, and in 2001, Bath became among Maine’s first cities to join the national Main Street America program, operated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
By the (Big) Numbers
You’ve perhaps spotted the towering cranes and gargantuan steel ships along Bath’s waterfront and wondered, what the heck is going on down there? That’s Bath Iron Works. The shipyard’s Crane #11, with its 295-foot, orange-and-white-striped boom, is known as the “Candy Crane,” an iconic part of the skyline in the City of Ships.
Acreage: 65 acres, which includes the shipyard’s own fire, police, and medical departments
What BIW builds: Arleigh Burke- and Zumwalt–class guided-missile destroyers for the U.S. Navy
Claims to fame: BIW has built more than 425 ships, including frigates, cruisers, destroyers, plus a variety of utility and passenger vessels, including Corsair IV, a 343-foot luxury yacht for financier J.P. Morgan in 1930, and Ranger, the 135-foot J Class racing yacht that won the 1937 America’s Cup.
Origin story: Thomas Worcester Hyde, a former brigadier general in the Union Army, founded BIW in an existing iron foundry on the waterfront. The shop made hardware for wooden ships, but as demand for wooden boats ebbed and dozens of Bath’s boatyards shuttered, BIW took to building steel ships. By World War I, it was the only surviving shipbuilder in Bath. The yard became a major producer of ships during World Wars I and II and produced luxury yachts, passenger ships, and fishing trawlers when demand for navy ships waned. Since 1995, BIW has been owned by aerospace and defense giant General Dynamics.
Among that program’s champions was Jane Morse, whose family has for generations operated Sagadahock Real Estate Association, which at one time owned 19 properties downtown. Morse worked to curate a mix of tenants who could meet residents’ everyday needs, from groceries and clothes to books, toys, and a cup of coffee. Sagadahock carried no debt on the properties, which helped keep rents affordable for small-business owners. Morse died in 2016, and much of the recent investment in Bath has been prompted by Sagadahock divesting its holdings.
Morse’s brother, John G. Morse IV, has been as careful about selling the properties as his sister was about filling them. Where possible, he’s sold to longtime tenants.
“They understand the property and market,” Morse says. “They’re going to be there long-term.”
Plenty of developers have come knocking, he says, but he’s turned away those who don’t share his interest in preserving the legacy his family established.
“I worry about someone slapping a coat of paint on a property, upping the rent so the longtime tenants can’t afford it, then flipping it,” he says. “I don’t want that to happen.”
Lisa-Marie and Andy Stewart, owners of Lisa-Marie’s Made in Maine, which opened in 2003, bought their building on Front Street from Sagadahock in 2018. Now, they are upgrading the exterior with the help of a city facade grant. Lisa-Marie says she welcomes the new investment all around her. “They’re not trying to come in and change it to look like someplace else,” she says.
Jaeger, of Halcyon Yarn, embraces a healthy tension that accompanies this wave of change. “We want to nurture the best of what we’re already doing and preserve what’s beautiful about the city’s history and culture.” she says. “But we don’t want to museum-ify it, which can be isolating and create stagnation.
“It’s a balancing act,” Jaeger adds. “But we’re engaging in that challenge rather than slamming ahead without thinking about it.”