Planners Look To The Future As Pandemic Transforms Maine's Downtowns

Oct 2, 2020

Planners and downtown organizations in Maine's three largest cities are preparing for the big changes that will come from the economic fallout of the ongoing pandemic.

On Thursday, we looked at Portland, where there are concerns about small businesses getting pushed out of the city's vibrant downtown. And now we look at Lewiston and Bangor, whose downtowns have been reborn after decades of decline. Both cities are betting that local investment and mixed use will help insulate their downtowns.

 

If you visited Lewiston's downtown a couple decades ago, you wouldn't have seen many locally-owned shops. J. Dostie Jewelers was one exception. "My business is a third-generation family owned business," says owner Mike Dostie, who's also the board chair of the Downtown Lewiston Association.

 

Dostie's grandfather started the shop in 1947, when Lewiston was a thriving mill town. "My grandfather'sgeneration, everybody lived in town, everybody worked in town, everybody shopped in town. It was the central hub."

 

The interior of Dostie's Jewelers in Lewiston, a family-owned business that's been in the city for three generations.
Credit Courtesy Mike Dostie

It's well know what happened in the decades that followed:  The mills closed, Lewiston emptied out, and the downtown - well, it struggled.

 

"And for many, many years," Dostie says. "I mean, we - our business - was one of the only ones.  You would never come to downtown Lewiston to go shopping. You might come to downtown Lewiston to go to one or two specific destinations, but really there was there was just not much here."

 

But in the early 2000s, things started to change with the arrival of refugees from Somalia and other African countries. These days, Lewiston's downtown could be described as "rebounding" - with restaurants, bars, and Somali-owned shops, along with offices and apartments. 

 

Dostie says revitalization was also driven by an influx of younger people interested in making Lewiston a better place to work and live.

"There's a tremendous amount of involvement from my generation," he says. "Because, essentially, you're filling a void and you could create change, you could see the town evolving. You could influence that change, you could influence that evolution. And you know, that's where our downtown started seeing a resurgence."

 

In Bangor, about 90 miles away, things are not so different, says Anne Krieg, a planning officer for the city.  "I think there has been a resurgence of people that want to live and work within walking distance."

 

Downtown Bangor, seen in July 2007.
Credit J. Stephen Conn / Flickr Creative Commons

Krieg says a downtown renaissiance was taking shape in Bangor just before the pandemic.

Industrial decline, followed by urban renewal in the '60s and '70s, left downtown Bangor with an abundance of parking but not much to do. Meanwhile, a few miles away, the Bangor Mall became a magnet for shoppers.

 

But a few years ago, Krieg says the downtown started coming back, with more stores, restaurants, and homes.  She says the downtown homes were vital.

"In order to make a good downtown, you have to have people," she says. "People are what keep it alive, and I think that's been a major change for Bangor. You have to have customers to have business."

So that's the picture before COVID-19 - two cities with downtowns doing well, after years of decline.  But what happens now?

Jeff Levine, the former director of planning and urban development for the city of Portland, says that for a lot of businesses, this recession will be the end.

"There's going to be some churn, to put the most sympathetic term on it," Levine says. "Some stores and businesses will close. But unless there's a turn away from the desire people have to go to these traditional downtowns...they will survive and they will continue to be places people want to go. But it's not going to be without some pain."

 

Both Bangor and Lewiston are betting that  downtown business closures won't be so widespread.  And Mike Dostie says the fact that many are mixed-use, partly residential, and locally owned is part of the reason why.

 

"So having small, small developers that are local to this area that are doing well in their investments is good for downtown," Dostie says. "You don't have landlords that are just going to walk away from a building or let it go to neglect. There's a lot more pride and hands on when you're dealing with a much smaller developer that isn't managing a property that has 150 units, but rather maybe three pieces, a property that has 12 units, commercial and residential."

In Bangor, planning officer Anne Krieg says her city's thinking about going even further - and adjusting zoning to allow for light manufacturing downtown.

 

"We're seeing more interest in that small, just a few employees-type business that traditionally you may not see in a downtown," she says, "adding another element, another layer to that landscape that you see."

 

This isn't as radical as it might sound. It's something that's being tried in former manufacturing cities including Lowell, Massachusetts, and might include breweries or shared commercial kitchen space - the types of businesses that attract young people.

"Because I do think there's a resurgence of people seeking careers that are tactile - you know, the whole tactile career of of making things with their hands," she says. "I've seen that a lot, and, you know, this new generation of people finding their way and finding new careers for themselves."

 

And all those apartments and houses downtown? Jeff Levine, the MIT researcher and city planner, says if some of the changes we've seen from COVID-19 become permanent, they'll be invaluable for keeping those areas vibrant.

"What some cities have been doing in terms of encouraging housing downtown is a huge plus," he says. "Local businesses need more disposable income nearby than they used to in order to survive. Looking at those areas that used to be offices above retail and really encouraging them to convert to residential I generally see as a good thing - particularly if we keep having a lot more remote working. Those offices are harder to rent as office space in the future."

 

Neither Lewiston nor Bangor has been rescued by a big project or a single employer; and unlike Portland, neither city is considered "hot" enough to attract a lot of interest from big, out-of-state investors - at least not yet.

 

Planners and advocates hope this will stand them in good stead for the long term, even if, for some businesses, the short term isn't pretty.