In Down East magazine’s July 2021 issue, we took a look at six of our favorite downtowns from all across the state — and the businesses, buildings, and boosters that make them great. Read up on more of Maine’s best small-town downtowns and start planning your next road trip
By Brian Kevin
Photographed by Dave Dostie
A handsome corridor of 19th-century brick buildings along the riverine crook where Cobbossee Stream joins the Kennebec River, Gardiner’s now-vibrant Water Street had a whole different vibe 20 years ago. “At that time, you would have seen some boarded-up windows and vacancies, and it was maybe even kind of dirty,” says Melissa Lindley, executive director of Gardiner Main Street, founded in 2003 to help the downtown bounce back. “I think, at that point, residents knew they needed to work together.”
In the years since, that work has included branding and incentive programs to entice new businesses, promotion of festivals and events, improvements to trails, gardens, and other infrastructure in the lovely Waterfront Park, and street-level improvements that include grant-funded upkeep of historic building facades. In 2019, Gardiner Main Street found buyers to redevelop a block of former mercantile buildings donated by Camden National Bank. For years largely vacant, the block is now filling with businesses, apartments, and gallery space.
Although the pandemic dealt Water Street a blow, it was seemingly temporary. By Lindley’s count, 11 businesses closed or moved last summer, but 11 new ones have opened since, with more on the way. “So in the long run, we’re beyond net zero,” she says. And that resilience is a testament to years of community investment in downtown. “It’s just a whole sense of pride for the community,” Lindley says. “It’s the heart of our city.”