5 Maine Urban Revitalization Success Stories

Lewiston, Maine.If you live in the Northeastern United States, chances are you’ve spent some time in Maine at some point or another. The sloganeers call it “Vacationland,” and for many of us who are “from away,” that’s all it is. Beyond Ogunquit, Bar Harbor and Kennebunkport, however, the story of contemporary Maine today is more complex.

Media reports focus on an aging population, economic stagnation and a brain drain; Maine is still recovering from the decline of the once all-mighty paper and pulp industry here, and the state’s riverbanks are dotted with old mill towns in varying states of health.

Upon closer inspection, though, you learn than like most places, Maine is not monolithic. While there are undoubtedly many places hurting, here are five Maine spots that are reinventing themselves for the 21st century:

Lewiston-Auburn

Located on the Androscoggin River, Lewiston and its neighbor Auburn had developed into bustling twin textile towns in the model of Lowell, Massachusetts, by the mid-1800s. The inevitable decline set in by 1970s as the regional paper and textile industries dried up, and it was in Lewiston where I saw prime downtown office space advertised for $3 per square foot. However, population and economic decline was stymied by an unexpected influx of Somali and Bantu immigrants to the area that began in earnest in 2001. Depending on whom you ask, it is estimated that at least 5,000 Somalis and Bantus have settled in Lewiston-Auburn. The stream of new arrivals into this community has been without controversy and tension, but from what I can tell the immigration is cited as a primary factor behind the sustained economic rebound enjoyed by the greater Lewiston-Auburn area over the course of the past decade. Notably, the Sun Journal has credited the new arrivals with revitalizing downtown by opening shops and business in previously shuttered storefronts.

Millinocket & East Millinocket

East Millinocket, Maine.

The quintessential Maine mill town and its smaller twin sister located an hour north of Bangor along the Penobscot River. The Millinocket pulp and paper mill was once the largest in the world, employing thousands to print paper goods like phone books and newspapers – propelling a boom hat lasted into the 1970s. Production and hiring slowed down dramatically and, for the first time, local high school graduates could no longer be assured a well-paying job at one of the local mills. After the Millinocket mill closed its doors in 2009 and East Millinocket followed suit in early 2011, area unemployment soared to 22%. The population had dropped by over half – t0 less than 5,000. However, good news came to the area in November 2011. After a push from Augusta and Governor Paul LePage, it was announced that the The Great Northern Paper Co. in East Millinocket mill would re-open under new ownership at greatly reduced capacity. Even though far fewer will be offered jobs than in the past (and those that are hired will be forced to accept dramatically lower pay), this has a created a wave of optimism throughout this corner of Maine.

Augusta

Maine’s capital city hasn’t suffered as much as some of its peers, but with a nickname like “Disgusta,” it’s hard to exclude from this list. Augusta’s (pop. 19,146) mills were closed in the 1970s and 1980s, but an influx of state dollars has kept the place afloat. In fact, a concerted downtown revival effort has been underway since the 1990s, a process that has included the removal of the Edwards Dam from the Kennebec River in the 1999 and the construction of a waterfront.

Biddeford & Saco

Amtrak Station in Saco.

Located in York County near the New Hampshire border, Biddeford (pop. 21,277) and Saco (pop. 18,477) were among Maine’s first industrial boom towns. The twin towns began a long legacy of cotton production in 1825, when Saco Manufacturing opened the largest textile mill in the country. Over the next quarter century, Saco and Biddeford both expanded cotton production and diversified into other industries and, in the process, was transformed into a leading manufacturing center for New England and beyond – a position it held well into the next century. As the industrial boom began its decline, mills closed, storefronts emptied and both towns fell into decline. Today, however, a major revitalization is underway, as massive brick mill buildings are being converted into office, studio and commercial spaces throughout the area. Saco is in the midst of a green revolution, including a new $2.2 million Amtrak station powered largely by wind and geothermal energy. And while downtown Biddeford may still be a little scruffy, it hopes to profit from a recent influx of artists and students from the nearby University of New England.

Waterville

Waterville Opera House.

The Waterville area was settled in the 1700s, and industrial development began in earnest after 1820 when a dam was built enabling the construction of a grist mill, saw mill, and a carding and clothing mill. Strategically located on the Kennebec River, Waterville (pop. 15,605) was chosen as a transportation hub in the mid-1800s, as railroad after railroad was built to connect the growing city to the rest of Maine and beyond. Most factories had shut their doors by the late 1950s, and the last passenger train left Waterville in 1960 – soon to be replaced by I-95. With Colby College and MaineGeneral the largest area employers by the late 1980s, Waterville sought to reinvent itself as a cultural destination by investing in a downtown revitalization and funding cultural pursuits such as the Waterville Opera in the 1970s, instituting the Maine International Film Festival in 1998 and opening the Waterville Arts and Community Center in the 2000s.

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About Zac Macinnes
Study abroad and Internet champion at @ISAabroad. Austin native, Boston enthusiast. Accomplished day-tripper and self-proclaimed man of the world.

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