A toot of my car horn to all who are trying — for the umpteenth time — to revitalize Augusta’s long-abandoned downtown. This time, a collection of national, state and local folks, many of whom are experts in this subject, have created a report and recommendations that focus on better parking, public art, the Kennebec River, a new major event and two-way traffic to revive the capital city’s downtown.
Steve Pecunis, the new director of the Augusta Downtown Alliance, told this newspaper, “A lot of people fondly remember the downtowns of the ’50s and ’60s, but those downtowns are not coming back.”
Count me among those fond rememberers. I walked to school through Winthrop’s downtown for 13 years. My dad worked at Wilson’s Dollar Stores there. Helen’s Fruit Store, Bruneau’s Market, Otto Weston Hardware, Smith’s gas station, LaVallee’s photo shop, McNamara’s bakery and restaurant, the Gull Theater, the bank and more created a thriving downtown.
McNamara’s and Bruneau’s moved out to Route 202, the start of an exodus that ended when the town knocked down a block of buildings to create a parking lot right in the middle of the downtown. The downtown I fondly remember is long gone.
Pecunis called for a “downtown of the 21st century,” noting, “It’s not going to be quick or easy. It’s new territory for us.”
Well, he has a couple of good local guides as he searches for that 21st century downtown. Roxanne Eflin, coordinator of Maine Street Maine, and Shannon Haines, executive director of the Waterville’s Maine Film Center and past director of that city’s Main Street project, are capable and experienced visionaries who know their way downtown.
If you are downtown and can find a place to see out behind the tall buildings, you’ll notice the city’s signature feature: the Kennebec River. We’ve made almost nothing of the opportunity the removal of the Edwards Dam provided to revitalize the river. From kayak hotels to more stocked fish, lots of ideas have been offered. No takers yet.
I would have begun, as soon as the dam was breached, to turn those downtown buildings around, so that entrances, restaurants, and shops faced the river. Today, most still face away from the city’s best asset and view.
I do think they ought to stop worrying over traffic flows. In fact, rather than make Water Street two-way, I’d reduce it to a single lane to give drivers some straight-in parking. Count my wife among the many who won’t even attempt to parallel park.
The real question is this: why are you so focused on bringing people back to the downtown area? To spend money there? We’re already doing that, all over the city. It’s got to be about more than money.
I see historic downtowns as the places people gathered, visited, ate, shopped, stopped by the library, attended church and enjoyed events. They were all about community. If Augusta’s leaders can find that down on Water Street, good for them!
For our weekly travel column in this newspaper, Linda and I have visited many downtowns throughout the state. Let’s examine a few.
Boothbay Harbor has a very confusing traffic pattern and difficult parking, but it’s packed tightly with shops, restaurants and inns, and it has really maximized its oceanfront setting. We particularly love the boardwalk across the harbor and the downtown Opera House.
Bangor wisely put its investments along the Penobscot River, including a new outdoor concert stage, and organized its wildly successful annual folk festival there. We especially enjoy dining on the porch of the Sea Dog restaurant, right on the river.
A multi-million-dollar investment in Waterville’s Opera House, plus a number of really good restaurants, makes us regulars in that city’s downtown.
Belfast has gone through an amazing transformation, led by dozens of art galleries, a brewery, interesting shops, the Co-op grocery and inns.
Even Gardiner — a place we hadn’t set foot in for at least 10 years — is now a regular destination for us now thanks to its great restaurants, Johnson Hall’s entertaining events and its popular street events.
Augusta has a start in this direction, with several good Water Street restaurants. Linda and I have written about two of them, Gagliano’s Italian Bistro and Lisa’s Legit Burritos, and both will continue to draw us down there for great food. A Water Street dining district would be wonderful, with a concert stage on the river to bring people there for dinner and music.
Downtowns are important. Good luck to Augusta!