A new look & outlook for Skowhegan, Maine

CDBG program awarded close to $13 million in grants to Maine towns in 2008

Article and photos By Ramona du Houx

February 13th, 2009 

The Bankery, barkery in Skowhegan.
The Bankery, bakery in Skowhegan.

On Water Street, Skowhegan’s main street that runs adjacent to the river, there has been a transformation happening over the last two years, with new lamp posts, trees, and sidewalks. Even the storefronts have been renovated. Much of the work has been made possible with the proceeds of a $400,000 Downtown Revitalization fund from a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG).

The grant issued by the Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD), helps communities make needed investments to enhance their downtowns. As a result, more people are shopping downtown and enjoying the new businesses that have opened up during the same time period.

The grant funds were divided up for different projects. For businesses, grants of $30,000 were offered with a two-to-one match by the business owner, which translates into a business owner paying $2 for every $1 in grant funds. Labor and materials were sometimes part of that match.

Twelve businesses took the opportunity to spruce up their buildings. The Bankery took advantage of the revitalization grant and replaced two picture windows and a sign.

Since the Bankery opened its doors in August, a steady stream of customers have been pouring in, as the word is spread about their homemade delicacies.

“It’s a great community, and people have helped us get going; they’ve been amazing,” said Mathew DuBois, the pastry chef. “We live in the local area and saw that there wasn’t a bakery in the area or the surrounding towns, so Skowhegan was the natural choice.”

The Bankery, nestled into the old bank building on Water Street, has used its surroundings to enhance its style and brand. A deposit there will ensure a sweet return in exchange. The owners have kept the vault, cash register, safety deposit boxes, and have hung photographs of the bank’s heyday and have other nostalgic memorabilia on display.

“The building was built in 1864, and we’ve brought it back to life. We are a niche food business, where everything is made from scratch. It’s a quality that’s hard to find,” said Dubois. “Our puff pastries are very popular, and we are open to suggestions, for we are always adding new products.”

As gas prices skyrocketed over the summer, the two bakers were spending to much of their paychecks to commute to Bangor to work in someone else’s bakery. That was the final reason why they decided to take the plunge, buying the building and opening their business.

“We had plans to do it for a year and a half. It was the right time,” said Hunt; then the market spun out of control, and we were wondering how wise a decision it was. Now, we feel it was. It’s always been our dream.”

The two business partners live upstairs and work more than full time to make sure their business succeeds. They feel connected with the community and love what they are doing. “We start the day at around five or five-thirty and end around eight … All these are reasons why I think its going well,” said co-owner, Michael Hunt. “We’re very positive about the future; so many people have told us that they love what we are doing. It’s been wonderful.”

Matthe DuBois and Michael Hunt, business partners and owners of The Bankery

Then there is the added service satisfaction. The owners go out of their way to make sure customers get exactly what they are wishing for. They make cakes, pies, and baked goods to order. They bake different types of bread daily and have specials according to the season.

The bottom line is they care about their products and customers. For bake goods that taste like what you imagine a quintessential grandmother would make, give the Bankery a try.

Next door, Peace Tree, a unique boutique for colorful ethnic clothes from around the world, jewelry and gifts, celebrated an important anniversary.

“It’s been wonderful,” said the owner, Susan Lord. “We made it to two years. Ever since the Bankery opened up, we’ve been getting more foot traffic.”

Named after the symbol for peace and harmony with nature, the goods in Lord’s store reflect her buoyant spirit and the store’s motto, ‘Peace Tree: where peace has its roots.’

Elsewhere many of the store’s items could cost three times as much. “I try to be reasonably priced,” said Lord. “I serve the community that my business is in, and that means putting people first.”

Peace Tree used grant funds to help redo some windows and painting.

Susan Lord's grandson celebrates two years of Peace Tree sucess
Susan Lord's grandson celebrates two years of Peace Tree sucess

The Empire Grill changed owners two years ago, revitalizing the diner made famous by Richard Russo’s novel and movie, Empire Falls. The restaurant’s new chef co-owner Kerry Pomelow has made a huge difference to business with her culinary expertise and new menu. They put the customer first, making dishes as requested. The place is regularly packed on a Friday night. “We’ve seen nothing but progress downtown, since we’ve been here,” said Pomelow.

Dave Ellis of Wish, a gift boutique with unique pottery, jewelry, fragrances and soaps from around the world, also celebrated its second anniversary.

“If the town is eligible for another grant, I’ll be sure to apply,” said Ellis, who has been successful because he too shares a deep commitment to serving his customers and setting a price range that is reasonable in Skowhegan. Recently Wish was listed in DownEast Magazine as a shop that must be visited.

The grant helped the Skowhegan Free Public Library put in needed insulation and upgraded 14 windows. The well-known meeting place of young and older readers also was able to do some exterior painting.

Prudential Insurance offices and Miles Carpenter Insurance used grant funds to refresh their look.

Economic development officials have said that the town will apply for another grant. The Downtown Revitalization Program provides funds for communities to implement comprehensive, integrated, and innovative solutions to identified problems facing their downtown districts. These downtown revitalization projects must be part of a strategy that targets downtown service and business districts and will lead to future public and private investment.

The CDBG funding is through the Community Enterprise Program and the Downtown Revitalization Program, both of which are overseen by the Office of Community Development, part of the DECD.

The CDBG program awarded approximately $13 million to Maine towns during its 2008 program year.

For more information on how your community could apply for grants visit the DECD Web site at: www.meocd.org/grants.