Downtown: Soul of a City
(from Maine Townsman, April 2000)
by Steve Cartwright, Selectman, Waldoboro

Empty storefronts, decaying sidewalks and deserted streets are common sights in old downtowns, from rural towns to urban centers. Once the hub of a community, downtowns have been decaying for decades, victims of malls and sprawl.

But some communities are fighting back, trying save and restore central business districts. Downtowns were traditionally providers of essential services, a meeting place for daily commerce, socializing and feeling a sense of belonging. If still intact, they often contain historic buildings, parks, libraries, meeting halls, churches and that combination of factors that creates a sense of place, a distinct identity.

One place that has done much to make its downtown thrive is the City of Bath, rich in period architecture tied to its rich heritage of shipbuilding and coastal commerce. City Planner Jim Upham grew up in Auburn, a city that tore out its downtown and failed to replace it, instead building strip malls. "It became the desert of Maine," he said. "I remember the first time I was allowed to go over to Lisbon Street (in Lewiston, across the river), the shopping mecca of central Maine. Now itís all boarded up. Thatís why we do so much to maintain the downtown.

"If we donít, Bath isnít Bath any more. If not, we might as well pave it over and all go shop at Wal-Mart," Upham said.

In this Kennebec River community of 10,000 people, downtown revitalization dates to the 1970s, when citizens organized Sagadahoc Preservation Inc., to save old buildings and keep the 19th century flavor of Front Street, the main business artery. But the boldest stroke occurred in the 1960s, when the city refused to allow Urban Renewal to bulldoze the old downtown. It was a master stroke. Had Bath endorsed Urban Renewal - sometimes tagged "Urban Removal" - the city might have the desolate look of other small cities across the country, where structures were razed but never replaced.

Thanks to the rejection of Urban Renewal and to Sagadahoc Preservationís efforts, ensuing years saw Front Street sidewalks widened with brick, the street narrowed and made one way; period streetlights installed, a waterfront park constructed on the site of abandoned, rotting piers.

New restaurants and retail shops augmented existing anchor stores, although some of the latter, including Halletís Drugstore and its popular ice cream, closed its doors. Compared to many other places, Bath has a thriving downtown. Not only are street-level stores fully occupied, but second and third floors are being used for business and even residential purposes.

But there is more work to do, according to Upham, who has been on the job four years. "We still feel downtown is under-utilized and the waterfront has vacant buildings." A portion of that area known locally as the Coal Pocket could be the site of a new ferry terminal, part of the stateís "marine highway" plan. And Ocean Properties, a firm which owns and develops lodging, is proposing a 100-room hotel in the middle of downtown Bath. Preliminary drawings show a building that would blend with existing architecture, something that is required by city zoning. Zoning, in fact, is currently undergoing an overhaul.

Upham said the Prawer Block would be razed for the hotel, but he is not aware of any historic significance to the structure which housed a fruit and produce company. He is upbeat about Bathís future, which includes the continuing appeal to tourists of the Maine Maritime Museum, built around the restored Percy & Small shipyard. Tourism counts, but he doesnít want Bath to become seasonally dependent, in economic terms.

Bath is geographically narrow, and at 9.8 square miles, quite small. That has its advantages. For one thing, there are few places for sprawling development; for another, a majority of people in Bath can walk to the downtown area. "Bath being so small, almost anything you do helps the downtown," he said. The city has scheduled bus service, and expects to purchase a bus for Bath Iron Works commuters, as a way to reduce the number of BIW employee cars parked all day in downtown lots. "Iíve worked in a lot of Maine communities and Iíve never seen so much concern about parking." There is talk of a parking garage to consolidate parked cars.

"We donít have a sprawl problem because there is nowhere to go," he said. "Bath is very small and very walkable. Weíre promoting living right in the downtown." A major new sewer project, leading from the downtown up Center Street to the Sagadahoc County Courthouse will further enhance the city and its historic downtown district. Besides separating storm and wastewater, it will include new granite curbing, brick sidewalks and underground utility lines, similar to earlier work on Front Street.

Upham acknowledged the shipyard is the cityís economic mainstay, and the reason Bath obtained a $40,000 defense conversion grant, with which it developed a Waterfront and Downtown Action Plan. He wants BIW to remain strong, and he hopes planned rail passenger service will eventually relieve car congestion caused by the shipyard. A handsome brick railroad station, turned over to the city by BIW, will be renovated after a low-income dental clinic is relocated.

For Upham, his job is part planner, part project manager. Working closely with City Manager John Bubier, he seeks to keep city councilors and department heads aware of revitalization goals - especially at budget time.

"The downtown is what the community thinks of itself. Itís the front door," he said.