GARDINER — In the aftermath of a 2015 Water Street fire, the path forward for Gardiner’s historic downtown wasn’t entirely clear.

When the fire, which started in 235 Water St., spread west to three other buildings in mid-July, many considered it a blow to the efforts to revitalize Gardiner’s downtown neighborhood.

Now, nearly two and a half years later, the most recent sign of the neighborhood’s vitality was celebrated Tuesday when the Caron family, including matriarch Lucienne Caron, gathered in Gerard’s Pizza to cut the ribbon on the new incarnation of the business it founded in 1964.

Lucienne Caron, 90, worked alongside her late husband, Real, after the restaurant opened, making items such as pies and muffins.

She said she is happy that her son Claude Caron has bought Gerard’s and is running it again.

The move marks a renaissance for the restaurant and shows the resilience of Water Street.

“When they look back on the history of Gardiner and its difficult times and its triumphs, Gerard’s story is going to be prominently placed,” said Patrick Wright, executive director of Gardiner Main Street. The organization’s mission is to revitalize Gardiner’s downtown.

The restaurant was a Gardiner mainstay by the time Claude Caron sold it to Jeff McCormick. McCormick ran it until his death at 43 in April.

In the aftermath of the 2015 fire, Gerard’s was closed for nearly a month to clean up the mess left by the fire. The restaurant shared a firewall with 235 Water St., and it’s that wall that’s credited with protecting the building from much of the fire’s damage.

McCormick took the opportunity to repaint, and he continued to pay his employees, even though he had no customers.

Three months after that, what was left of 235 Water St. was demolished, leaving an empty space next to the three damaged buildings to the west, which were boarded up and secured after the fire.

Twelve people were displaced as a result, and one business relocated.

“From a psyche perspective, it seems like we had already started to turn a corner (at the time of the fire),” Wright said Tuesday afternoon.

While the fire was a blow, investment in Water Street properties has continued since then.

Earlier this year, District 1 Gardiner City Councilor Terry Berry bought two of the fire-damaged buildings and has since secured a grant from the city’s Facade Program, funded through the Community Development Block Grant Program, to fix up the building’s front.

Developer Ed Raws bought the vacant lot next to Gerard’s and the building next to that. At the time, he announced plans to put in a bar and a patio by summer, but those plans didn’t materialize. Raws didn’t return a call immediately Tuesday.

A little later, Mike Gent and Cheryl Clark bought 252 Water St., also known as the Milliken Block, with plans to turn the upper floors into artist studios and the ground floor into a restaurant and gallery space. Two Gramps Brewing opened in October and SpinOff Studio relocated in the early fall.

In the spring, Fernando Jantorno Stelser opened a Domino’s restaurant on the corner of Church and Water streets.

Fundraising continues for the Johnson Hall Performing Arts Center, as it prepares for a 2019 opening of its upper theater.

Gardiner Main Street made its own investment in downtown Gardiner when it took on a block of buildings from Camden National Bank in November 2016.

Even with the all the investment, Wright said there is still a concern about the effect the buildings that haven’t been redeveloped yet will have on downtown property values.

“But the investment is a testament to the stronger forces at work,” he said.

In the summer of 2015, Mayor Thom Harnett called the fire a community disaster.

On Tuesday, he said he was pleased that Gerard’s was back up and running.

“Gardiner is an incredibly strong and resilient community,” he said, adding that it’s been fun to watch the restaurant renovation.

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

[email protected]

Twitter: @JLowellKJ

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