Photograph by Memorymakers Photography for the City of Bangor
[dropcap letter=”I”]t’s long been known as “the heart of Maine,” and it only takes a quick spin through the Penobscot Valley to see why. From the mighty Penobscot River, which once carried timber from the great North Woods, to the University of Maine, an academic and cultural hub, to the home of Stephen King, the state’s prolific favorite son, the region is as authentically Maine as they come.
So it’s no surprise that the area continues to lure entrepreneurs, young families, and retirees. Today’s Penobscot Valley plays host to hip craft breweries and wooden canoe manufacturing, 3-D printing and backwoods camping. New businesses are drawn by that kind of vitality, along with the abundant natural resources, unparalleled transportation capabilities, and an educated and skilled workforce. Urban and rural perks are on offer side-by-side — a pairing nicely exhibited by the region’s two showcase towns, Bangor and Hampden. Ready for a closer look?
Hampden’s recently revitalized marina; town-supported Bronco Youth Football; the new Hampden Academy; young bikers at the Hampden Children’s Day Parade. Courtesy of the Town of Hampden
There’s a great sense of community here — you tell people you’re from Hampden and it means something. You feel like you know everyone, and you don’t worry about asking a neighbor for help. The kids go to school together from kindergarten through high school, and the schools are great — teachers and administrators really care. Plus, you’re so close to Bangor that you get all the perks: the Waterfront Concerts, the Cross Center. My son even plays in the Bangor Symphony Youth Orchestra. It’s really the best of both worlds.
— Nancy Fenders, Husson University registrar and Hampden resident since 2001
A River Town with Momentum
44 percent of Hampden’s population over age 25 has at least a bachelor’s degree (compared to 30 percent statewide)
…………………. Median income is just over $75,000 (compared to about $44,000 in Penobscot County as a whole)
…………………. Hampdenites spend 31 percent more on travel than the average U.S. household
…………………. The best town in Maine for young families, according to personal finance website Nerdwallet
[dropcap letter=”W”]ith great schools, a riverfront location, and easy access to all Bangor has to offer, it’s no wonder Hampden is on the rise. The quiet town of 7,000 relishes its small-town, family-friendly identity. Consider the scene from the Little League’s opening day: The players go door-to-door, asking friends and neighbors to help support the teams. Meanwhile, the grown-ups get to work sprucing up the playing fields after a long winter. Local business owners lend equipment to grade and trim the fields, while other neighbors pitch in to set up fences. By the time the work is done, the grill is blazing at the snack shack and everyone’s gathering for a community lunch, with an afternoon round-robin tournament to follow.
At the heart of the town is Hampden Academy, founded 17 years before Maine achieved statehood — not that you’d know it from a look at its immaculate new building, completed in 2012 with a mix of state and local funding. Local dollars supported features like a 900-seat performing arts center and expanded gym and wellness facilities — all part of Hampden’s commitment to making the town’s public high school a welcome resource for the whole community. Students benefit from more than just top-notch facilities: Hampden Academy boasts impressive standardized test scores and a graduation rate of 97.7 percent.
Meanwhile, Hampden native and hotelier Danny Lafayette has redeveloped the school’s former site, known as Historic Hampden Academy, into an attractive business center crowned with a historic bell tower. And it’s just one of several recent commercial developments in a town where officials have worked to minimize red tape and facilitate new businesses taking root. Local parks have benefited from the same progressive spirit, with a new trail network at pretty Dorothea Dix Park that winds through the woods to reach a quiet patch of riverfront. It all adds up to an idyllic picture — and that’s just the way Hampden residents like it.
The Penobscot Theatre, an anchor of Bangor’s historic (and hip) downtown; the Penobscot River; the annual Kenduskeag Stream Race typifies the region’s outdoor-adventure ethos; Fourth of July fireworks over the river. Memorymakers Photography for the City of Bangor.
When my partner and I moved to Bangor 10 years ago, we were looking for an experience that was 180 degrees from our lives in Jacksonville, Florida. We spent so much time commuting by car there. Now, most days I walk to work at the University of Maine Museum of Art. We spend a lot of time at downtown restaurants like Blaze, or we walk across the bridge to Mason’s Brewing Company on the waterfront in Brewer. I’ve also gotten involved in the Downtown Bangor Partnership, the cultural commission, and other city groups. It’s been a great way to meet likeminded people who share a vision for the city and pride in its success.
— George Kinghorn, director of the University of Maine Museum of Art and Bangor resident since 2008
Maine’s Just-Right Metro
[dropcap letter=”F”]or fans of city living, Bangor is something of a unicorn: a vibrant and walkable downtown, plenty of arts and entertainment, and enviable food and drink, all in a none-too-sprawling burg with affordable homes, a thriving business community, and a lovely waterfront setting.
The median age of Bangor residents is 35.7 — slightly younger than Portland’s
…………………. From 2016 to 2021, the Bangor area is expected to see double the job growth it experienced in the previous five years
…………………. Bangor’s nonprofit arts and cultural organizations generated some $10 million in economic activity and hundreds of jobs in 2015
…………………. The best city in Maine to start a business, according to a 2017 analysis by personal finance website WalletHub
The seat of Penobscot County is the retail, service, and cultural hub for the Penobscot Valley (and indeed, much of Maine). Bangor offers residents and business owners a tight-knit community with easy access to both world-class businesses and local and federal decision-makers. Want to consult with a city councilor? Send her a Facebook message, and she’ll get back to you. Need to consult with a staffer for Senator Susan Collins? Pick up the phone and schedule a meeting in minutes. (This is not how, say, Philly rolls.)
Bangor International Airport’s runway is longer than any of the six at Boston’s Logan International, able to accommodate literally any aircraft in the world (including daily flights that can get you to NYC in under two hours — quicker than driving to Portland!). C&L Aviation Group has built a thriving business around that runway; the company flies in aircraft from all over the world for maintenance, repairs, and overhauls by its skilled staff of more than 250 employees.
Arguably Bangor’s biggest draw is its increasingly cool downtown, full of historic buildings rehabbed into mod apartments, smart restaurants, and eclectic shops. Craft beer, well-roasted coffee, an indie bookseller, and contemporary art? It’s all downtown. In the summer, nearby Darling’s Waterfront Pavilion offers one of Maine’s best concert slates, and families turn out for the American Folk Festival, the Maine Discovery Museum, and everything from circuses to basketball games to Broadway shows at the Cross Insurance Center. Simply put: there always seems to be something happening in Bangor.
Memorymakers Photography for the City of Bangor; Goodwill Riders Snowmobile Club; Town of Hampden. Mark Fleming; Myles Block.
Our Penobscot Valley Favorites
From the table to the trail to the taproom, here’s where locals gather.
Bangor City Forest. With more than 680 acres of wildlife habitat and some 10 miles of trails, the Rolland F. Perry City Forest is a cherished spot for hiking, running, biking, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing. Birders and wildlife-watchers gather here too (watch for herons, horned owls, black bears, and more). 207-992-4490.
Bangor Waterfront Park. Big names like Dolly Parton, the Avett Brothers, Jason Aldean, the Dave Matthews Band, and Foreigner attract music lovers from across the state (and beyond) to Darling’s Waterfront Pavilion (207-358-9327). For three days in August, the American Folk Festival (207-262-7765) is the state’s most diverse (and family friendly) musical event. Check out everything from New Orleans brass bands to Colombian cumbia to Japanese taiko. Downtown Bangor.
Collins Center for the Arts. A fixture on the University of Maine campus, the Collins Center is a regional mecca of high culture, from chamber music to livestreams of the Metropolitan Opera to touring theater productions. Plus, pop music, family acts, and the odd comedian now and then. 2 Flagstaff Rd., Orono. 207-581-1755.
Cross Insurance Center. What do a UMaine basketball game, a huge wedding expo, Elton John, Professional Bull Riders, and the Maine Science Festival have in common? You can find them all at the Cross Center, which can hold up to 8,500 people for concerts — not to mention other configurations for conferences, meetings, and events of all kinds. 515 Main St., Bangor. 207-561-8300.
Dorothea Dix Park. Stretching from Main Street in Hampden down to the Penobscot River, Dorothea Dix Park was spiffed up in 2015 with a lovely wooded trail system already beloved by walkers, runners, and mountain bikers. Look for the handsome arched entrance to the park (named after the Hampden native and activist on behalf of the indigent mentally ill) across from the Bee Whisperer. Route 1A, Hampden. 207-862-3034.
Hollywood Casino. With a sleek hotel, multiple dining options, and entertainment choices running the gamut from trivia nights to live music to specials at the slots, the Vegas-style palace is part of the fabric of Bangor. 500 Main St., Bangor. 877-779-7771.
Mason’s Brewing Company. When its doors opened in 2016, this 300-seat brewpub on the bank of the Penobscot made a splash with inventive pub food, craft beers in the Belgian and German traditions, and the holy grail of Maine dining: waterside seating. 15 Hardy St., Brewer. 207-989-6300.
McLaughlin’s at the Marina. Whether you pick the “lazy lobster dinner” (no bib necessary, since the staff has done the dirty work of shelling the meat), the more au courant lobster mac and cheese, or even (heaven forbid!) the chicken primavera, you’ll be impressed with the kitchen at this fun, approachable Hampden gathering spot — plus, you can’t beat the waterfront view. 100 Marina Rd., Hampden. 207-990-1111.
Nocturnem Draft Haus. Not only is it arguably the state’s best beer bar, with rotating taps of nicely curated Maine micros and tough-to-find imports, there’s also praiseworthy pub food (creative burgers, gorgeous charcuterie, locally made sausages), all in a space that feels like the community’s living room. 56 Main St., Bangor. 207-907-4380.