BREWER, Maine – Cities across the nation long overlooked their riverfronts’ economic and recreational potential. The result can be seen today in abandoned industrial properties and contaminated sites that line the rivers winding through a number of American cities. Many of those cities entirely left their rivers out of the downtown development equation.
That dynamic has been steadily changing in recent decades, though, and Bangor and Brewer offer examples of what a municipality’s recommitment to its river can — and can’t — do.
The cities on opposite sides of the Penobscot River have both pursued ambitious plans for their riverfront areas over the past 30 or so years in hopes of sparking major redevelopment. More recently, city officials in Brewer have been at work finalizing an updated comprehensive plan to guide development over the next decade, and the plan reaffirms the city’s commitment to its riverfront.
There’s no shortage of commitment to riverfront revitalization in Bangor or Brewer. But commitment alone hasn’t been enough to drive wholesale riverfront transformation.
The Bangor Waterfront once clearly reflected the fact that the Penobscot River was a shipping and industrial corridor rather than a recreational and scenic asset. A railway switching station, oil tanks, a coal storage and sale facility, and an old warehouse building in rough shape once dominated the area. But starting in the 1980s, the city started buying up plots along the river until it owned an entire milelong strip with Main Street on one side and the river on the other.
The vision at the turn of the millennium was an ambitious one. A Maryland-based firm hired by the city sketched out plans for at least two hotels, a conference center, a marina, condominiums, offices buildings, restaurants, a retail pavilion, a ferry terminal and an amphitheater. The firm projected the development would attract $144 million in private investment, produce $3 million in new property tax revenues for the city annually, and yield 600 full-time jobs and 2,000 construction jobs.
Today, the waterfront area does feature an amphitheater and the Hollywood Casino Hotel, but the projects envisioned haven’t exactly panned out. Developers have proposed condominiums, but they’ve been unable to pre-sell enough units to move ahead with construction. Efforts to entice restaurants to locate in the waterfront area have come up short.
In the process, though, Bangor’s waterfront area has been transformed aesthetically. The arrival of the National Folk Festival more than a decade ago sparked redevelopment that has equipped the zone to host outdoor concerts. A walking path winding through much of the area has helped to make the area a recreational destination.
In the process, where Bangor fell short in sparking large-scale economic development, it has succeeded in developing an area that adds to the quality of life in the Queen City.
On a different scale, similar changes have taken place across the river in Brewer. The city once envisioned an entertainment district and public market for its Penobscot River frontage. Although that hasn’t happened, the city’s commitment to economic and residential development along its waterfront has — as in Bangor — resulted in an aesthetic transformation that makes the waterfront a pleasant space for recreation. Last year, the city opened a paved and lighted walking trail that stretches along the river.
In its new comprehensive plan, Brewer makes the waterfront area a focus of its development goals. Those goals include “high-density residential development” that grows the city’s housing stock beyond single-family homes and small apartment buildings. The planning documents also indicate hopes for restaurants and entertainment facilities along the waterfront.
The vision might never become reality — on either side of the Penobscot — but the commitment can ensure the waterfront continues to contribute to an improved quality of life for Bangor’s and Brewer’s residents and visitors.
By The Bangor Daily News Editorial Board