This week will mark two years since a fire ravaged the downtown core of the Old Town late on a Saturday night.
There is still a hole in the part of the city center affected by the fire. But new businesses have arrived in the region, gradually adding a bit of vitality. There is progress in filling vacant positions. And a new city plan focuses on increasing foot traffic and beautifying downtown buildings to make the area more attractive.
âOver the past two years, I have seen the resilience of the Old Town,â said EJ Roach, Director of Economic Development for the Old Town. âWhile the vacant lot in front of Town Hall is a daily reminder of the fire, we try to put this event in our rearview mirror and keep moving forward.â
Part of the city’s work plan to revitalize the downtown core is to help business owners access facade grants so that they can improve the appearance of their buildings and so the buildings fit in. the aesthetics that the city seeks to develop. The plan also emphasizes the use of financial incentives to attract business.
A major commercial development has hit downtown since the 2019 fire in November 2020, when Alex Gray, president of Waterfront Concerts, opened his Kanu restaurant and nightclub.
Gray had owned the Main Street building diagonally across the fire-devastated properties since 2017 and was constantly striving to open its doors, he said.
While opening during a pandemic may not have been “the smartest idea,” he said business had been good. Plus, Gray said, the city has made it easier to operate.
âThey’re just fantastic, from permits to licensesâ¦ to creating methods of trying to get more traffic downtown,â Gray said. âAll of these things are steps in the right direction for the downtown corridor. ”
An art gallery and boutique that sells Maine-made items and works by Native American artists are also new downtown additions.
In January, Orono’s Matt Smolinsky purchased the building that houses 278-282 Main Street, one of the last buildings standing after the fire ravaged the block.
The former home of the Penobscot Times, which closed its office in the old town in December 2020 to move to BDN headquarters in Bangor, has two outlets in the front and a few apartments above.
The Minor Gallery, which features Smolinsky’s art as well as works by other artists, occupies one of these locations. Kin, the Maine-made goods store, occupies the other.
Smolinsky wanted to be in a city center, which drew him to the Old Town, he said. Although business is not booming and the downtown area is not the busiest in the region, the city has been a great resource and is committed to attracting and retaining new businesses like its own, did he declare.
“One thing I can say: compared to artists I know all over the country trying to do the same thing as me – open a gallery – they talk about all this bureaucracy,” Smolinsky said. âI feel incredibly lucky that the whole old town was with open arms, quick with everything I needed. I feel the love. ”
Next to Kin, which opened in July, co-owner Meaghan Pehrson Martin said business was going well and more people were stopping there.
“We are starting to see people walking around the city center of the old town again, which I was very excited about because I was not expecting it,” she said. “It seems like the start of downtown is a place people want to go.”
A new restaurant is expected to open in the coming months at the former Yamas Bar and Grill location in the fire-hit neighborhood, Roach said. And the Sewall building at the corner of Center and Main streets has also been sold, he said.
Despite new activity, not all of the businesses in the downtown block that burned down have returned. But one successful business is Cutting Edge, which only missed a week of activity after the fire, said owner Lisa Burton.
Burton’s salon was located at 272 Main Street for 26 years. After the fire, she quickly found a space to rent nearby, where the salon has been for two years. More recently, Burton moved to a new section of downtown, recently purchasing a building across from the old Boomhouse restaurant, a bit upstream of the Penobscot River on Main Street.
The city’s downtown redevelopment plan pays particular attention to this area of ââMain Street. One of the efforts was to create a âpop-up shop villageâ in one of the wasteland in the old town.
So far, three temporary stores, including an ice cream stand, have moved in, Roach said.
And at the former Boomhouse location, the building owner is negotiating a lease with a restaurant that plans to open in 2022, Roach said.
âWe continue to work with downtown real estate owners to renovate vacant and underutilized space,â Roach said. “And we need to continue to work with and support our existing businesses while also building relationships with potential new businesses with the goal of developing or starting a business here in Old Town.”