Effective downtown development involves a mixture of thoughtful infrastructure improvements, community planning, and careful consideration of the types and mix of businesses that could lead to an increased “multiplier effect” of economic activity. Last week I discussed brew pubs as a model of downtown development that also encourages community building by providing places where people not only purchase things but build the fabric of communities. Brew pub development, properly sized and operated, can be part of an effective strategy for economic growth in any town – from Caribou to Oquossoc.
Another example of community building endeavors that has taken root in Maine is the proliferation of outdoor music venues. There is simply nothing like music to bring people together. Regardless of the genre, people gather to enjoy music together. And wherever gathering occurs, seeds of economic growth occur. Who can forget when Phish came to Limestone, Maine and converted the old base to a medium-sized city? My relatives, who once worked at the base, told me in their heavy County accents “it was like the entire state moved up here for a while,” even though they couldn’t resist adding “The” to Phish when referring to the band. The event certainly increased Limestone’s brand recognition to a national audience.
For decades outdoor concerts have been produced in communities through the state. But recently, some have taken the extra step to provide the infrastructure to provide a permanent venue. This has allowed for a planned and consistent venue for music and other performances to take place, year after year. It takes a skill set to make it successful on an ongoing basis (we all remember how successful the Ball Park was in Old Orchard Beach when it first was launched as a music venue), but recently I have seen outdoor facilities become a much bigger piece of the downtown development toolbox. The challenges are extraordinary. Parking remains an obstacle that requires very careful planning and execution. However that doesn’t necessarily mean giant rolling acres of asphalt are needed – I think of the unique solutions communities like Damariscotta have developed that allow for thousands of people to take part in their downtown festivals (one of the many things I love about Damariscotta is that there seems to be a festival a month. Parking is not an issue).
In addition to parking, traffic planning can make or break the long term success of a facility. People will be patient the first few times, but a facility that you cant get out of is one you really don’t want to return to. In the late 1980s I saw the Grateful Dead at Foxboro stadium and it took so long to get out of the venue we were concerned we would end up a modern version of the Donner Party. I never returned.
Other challenges remain, such as adequate bathrooms (to avoid “Port-o-phobia” or the fear of inadequate facilities to meet urgent needs), barrier-free accessibility so all can enjoy the show, and of course the quality of the venue itself.
Which brings me to the shining success story of the last decade – the Bangor Waterfront. Bangor has created a world-class facility that has overcome all of the issues above (including some mysterious smells) to become without question the preeminent outdoor venue North of Boston. It has spurred an almost unthinkable amount of additional peripheral development including the return of the venerable Cross Insurance agency back to the downtown of Bangor. It is a remarkable success as an economic engine and I take my hat off to all those who made it happen. The quality and level of acts have increased in recent years so that now acts that never have considered Maine come here regularly. Steely Dan north of Boston? I never would have thought it possible. But this year, one of the greatest, longest running outdoor shows of all time is coming to the Queen City. When the announcement was made I was so proud that finally, after all these years, he was coming. Jimmy Buffett. Coming to Maine. Unthinkable without the venue that Bangor has provided and the demonstrated pull it has.
My relationship with Jimmy goes back a few years. I am the youngest by far in my family, which was the source of merciless teasing from my older siblings. “You’re a mistake you know” my sister would tell me. My mother consoled me with “we are Catholics, we don’t make mistakes.” But when they retired I was still a teenager. And when they moved to the Florida Keys to soak up the sun on a more permanent basis, I went with them.
It was there that I heard a ubiquitous sound. Everywhere I went I heard this guy singing music that was hard to define. Part rock, country, with a mix of Bob Marley and James Taylor. It was of course, Jimmy Buffett whose longevity and loyal fans are legendary. And in the Keys, he is the poet laureate and national spokesmen. Since I first heard his music played in a dive tiki bar on Grassy Key, I have seen dozens of Jimmy Buffett shows coast to coast. He is nothing short of a national cultural icon.
And as anyone can tell you, a Buffett show is a happening. My friends, when they heard the news, have all asked “does Bangor know what is about to happen?” Buffett creates a friendly, upbeat, but enormous block party that will fill the whole city with thousands of barbeques, dance parties and reggae beats. It is a scene that cannot be described. People come for the music, sure, but MORE come for the scene. For one day, Bangor will look (and smell) much more like Key West than it even thought possible.
So Bangor, I once again take my hat off to you. This downtown development is the finest example I have seen in execution and design and gets better every year. It could be replicated and emulated, albeit on a smaller scale, in many regional centers throughout Maine as part of a economic development strategy. But you did it first on this scale and we all thank you for what you have accomplished. Your gravitational pull has greatly increased as a result. I can guarantee that the livability of the downtown has increased logarithmically, if not exponentially, due to your efforts – and whenever I see another piece in the Bangor Daily News about the growing residential presence downtown, I cant help but think this is a direct result in part of the music venue you have created. Bravo!
IMAGE CREDIT: WaterfrontConcerts Dot Com