Water Street Wishes
Augusta’s downtown is poised for a comeback, according to economic developer Michael Duguay.
- By: Kathleen Fleury
Born and raised in Fairfield, Michael Duguay has devoted his entire career to economic development in Maine. He worked for Governors McKernan and King, as well as the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development. In 1999, he was recruited by the city of Augusta to be the director of development. Duguay has high hopes for the state capital’s downtown district. We talked to him about Water Street and the ways in which he envisions a bright future for the historic strip.
Can you describe what Water Street used to be like?
That was the place for commerce in the city — and the region. From Augusta’s perspective, it had a roaring downtown until the late seventies and early eighties. But as the socioeconomic situation started to shift, people began choosing to live on the outskirts of the community, which had a direct impact on the downtown. It’s a very similar story that you hear from a lot of communities in Maine that are service centers, such as Bangor, Lewiston, and Waterville. We all had thriving downtowns that were the center of the community.
What contributed to the demise of Water Street in particular?
The people started moving away and created a little bit of sprawl. They wanted other shopping alternatives closer to the highways. That was the death knell to downtown as we know it. I grew up in the early seventies in Waterville and Augusta, and both downtowns were thriving. Coming in as a kid, both locations were the place to be. As people started to move farther away from the core of community, that’s when a lot of the shopping options ended up going closer to the interstates. In Augusta, the Turnpike Mall was the first one on the highway that started to pull people in the sixties. So this has been going on for a fair amount of time.
How are you hoping to revitalize Water Street today?
We think the secret to unlocking this whole prize is bringing people back down into the downtown. You have to be relevant to people. If you aren’t relevant, it’s going to be next to impossible to revitalize your downtown. So we have to bring people down to Water Street once again with a purpose. We have to look at the second, third, and fourth stories of those buildings on Water Street and find ways for people to live there and populate the downtown. For developers, we need to make the numbers work on the merit of housing, and then the ground floor opportunity becomes the gravy. In the past it was the opposite. People really are the lifeblood of the downtown. No question. In the last year, there’s been a sea change of enthusiasm, and it has been playing out by people starting new ventures.
What are some examples of new businesses popping up in the past few years?
Riverfront Barbeque & Grille established a place upstairs, a walk-up lounge called the Gin Mill last year. He found that people were looking for an upscale bar and lounge. It has been a raving success. And there’s Chase Farm Bakery, owned by a woman who had been part of our farmers’ market. She opened up a bakery in a small space in the Olde Federal Building, the old post office building. Recently the University of Maine at Augusta (UMA), made an announcement that they had been given a building on Water Street by one of their trustees, and they are planning on converting the building to house their building and construction program as well as their architecture and art programs. We’ve actually partnered with UMA to try to get a grant for an artist-in-residency program to have a studio on the ground floor. There’s also Downtown Gifts & Crafts. Louanne Manter, who has been in community for a fair amount of time, thought she’d get in on the action, and opened a fine gifts store, with wine and tea plus a plethora of other gifts. I think what’s happening here is that [entrepreneurs] are starting to realize more people are looking at the downtown as a meeting place and convening place.
What are some of the specific steps Augusta has taken to help make this happen?
For example, one year ago we developed the infrastructure for up to fifty businesses (either existing or new) to hook up to free wireless Internet. So any visitor, whether you’re at a marketplace or canoeing on the Kennebec, if you have a laptop or another device, you can hook up for free. That is very unique. Many [communities] offer the access, but not for free.
What are some of the obstacles you face in revitalizing that downtown area?
I think it is perception, to be honest. Most people look at it like you can’t do this in downtowns anymore, that they’re a thing of the past. It needs some pioneers, some people who are looking at it with a different eye. It’s not going to be for everyone. You can’t look for commoditized, cheap space. Downtowns are a different breed.
What does downtown Augusta offer that is unique?
Outside your door you can fish, kayak, or canoe on a world-class river. You can rollerblade, run, bike, or walk on a seven-mile river trail. In a year or so, you’ll have access to a top-notch certified Nordic center at the brand new Bond Brook Recreation Area. And there’s even a regulation outdoor hockey rink on the old mill site. So especially for younger people who want to find a feeling of living in an urban environment, they don’t necessarily have to go to a big city to do it. In Augusta you have a built up environment and you get that feel of living in an urban center, but it’s very manageable and livable.
If you could think of one pie-in-the-sky idea that you’d like to see happen in Augusta, what would it be?
I would like to say that we’ll start a revolution in market rate housing on the second and third floors, then the brewpubs and the retailers will want to be there, where people are putting money back into the economy. We want to develop an ecosystem that sustains itself between housing, shopping, and recreation. If you can do all that by taking one step out your door, that’s a neat opportunity that you don’t see a lot in central Maine.
- By: Kathleen Fleury