My name is Kevin Mattson. My parents are both farmers from Northern Aroostook County who are descended from the Swedish and French immigrants who settled the region north of Caribou, Maine. Like most farmers, my father was also a carpenter and after active duty as a Marine in the Korean War, he moved his family to Gardiner, Maine in the hopes of finding more opportunity. This was just about the time that Aroostook County began its long, slow attrition of family farmers.
My father opened a lumber company and a paint store in Gardiner, and I grew up in those businesses. As was often the case, my mother did the books at night, worked behind the counter during the day and also took care of my brother, sister and I. I literally had a playpen as an infant located behind the counter in the paint store. There was no difference or delineation in our lives between work and play, it was just one seamless stream of activity. When I turned ten I was given a job in the paint store as a stock boy, and that is when I developed my life-long love for downtowns.
Downtowns exude life and reflect the values of those who live there. People would live, create, eat and work in the downtowns prior to the 1980s, when a long slow decline started. In the downtown was everything you could want, it had its own micro-economy and culture. The downtown was the sacred spaces of commerce because they were so personal, so closely knit.
I came back to Maine from New York in 1990. My love for downtown life had grown to a fascination with old buildings in general. I started purchasing small houses which I would fix up myself and sell. Soon that grew into larger and more complex buildings. But all old buildings have the same ethereal quality, you can feel the former lives and history when you walk through them. They are testaments to our culture and history as a state.
I now engage in large scale redevelopments – old hospitals, mills, manufacturing plants. Some are in the downtowns and some are near it, but all are buildings that have been designed for some purpose that has now passed out of use. As such my primary objective is to repurpose and find a new life in these old buildings. In that process I realized that these old structures have a draw of their own. People like to work in them. And now, as was the case when I was young, they like to live in them.
Downtowns are now in full resurgence. This blog will detail the stories of communities, business and individuals who are engaged in this revival. Through their stories I hope to show a perspective on Maine commerce and life that is unique and compelling. The redevelopment of an old structure may pave the way to a local solution to problems of food insecurity, affordable housing, business incubation or the creation of “new economy” jobs. Everyone likes to see an old building saved, it seems like an old friend that has been given a second lease on life. But the implications of who is using the building, and why, may be much more far reaching. I hope to explore those implications.