Developer Tom Niemann at the Arsenal in Augusta, Maine. Photo by Ramona du Houx
By Ramona du Houx
All along the Kennebec River, towns are waking up to the river’s force that throughout history has helped mold the lives of the people of Maine. Native Americans traveled its byways, connecting communities and sustaining their tribes with the river’s plentiful fish and game. As the nation grew, more settlements grew up along its banks. At one time, they say a skilled logger could walk across the river from log to log, floating downstream to the mills. More than a century later, the river is breathing new life again, into communities that are transforming in the global economy along its banks.
Augusta is nestled along those banks. In 1827, the town was designated the capital of Maine, our nation’s 23rd state.
When some of the first Maine lawmakers looked out from the Capitol, across the river, they knew growth was imminent. To provide a free and public space for the people of Augusta to enjoy, they designated land for Capitol Park.
Now city planners have also realized the value of open spaces for a new generation. “Augusta can create the first green belt in Maine,” they wrote in their planning proposal report. “East Augusta already has large blocs of conservation lands. If they are connected they can provide a large bloc of undeveloped area that will allow wildlife to thrive and people to enjoy themselves in the outdoors.”
In the city’s proposal, using green spaces that connect existing trails, athletic fields, and parks is highly recommended. Imagine walkways along the riverbank intertwining with parks. With the rail trail, which hundreds enjoy every day, and existing dispersed green spaces, it’s possible.
In pursuit of this goal the city council agreed to purchase more than 166 acres of undeveloped land along Bond Brook for $160,000 in August. The land will be used to create a new city park and protect the brook’s water quality.
The city’s Comprehensive Planning Committee’s proposal promotes the Kennebec as a focal point for a Renaissance in activities, development and economic growth. “Augusta is on the threshold of a new era,” the report says. “The new Augusta starts with the Kennebec River.”
“We have the momentum and optimism,” said Mayor Roger Katz, an Augusta native. “I believe we have a window here of three to four years to put the pieces in place for a more livable city and riverfront. We need to seize this opportunity.”
With the publication last fall of the Brookings Institution Report on Maine, there has been a greater focus with policymakers statewide on developing areas in a way that preserves Maine’s quality of life. The value Maine has in its historic buildings, natural resources, hospitality sector, and hard workers is being recognized more since the report, and city planners and officials are now focusing more on these factors to maintain and foster.
They also are important to Tom Niemann of Niemann Capital, whose company recently purchased the Kennebec Arsenal.
“The Kennebec Arsenal, a national landmark, will be the destination in Augusta, Maine, for many visitors and residents to enjoy for a long time,” said Niemann during the transfer of property ceremony last spring. “Niemann Capital and its partners will be good stewards of this neighborhood and are committed in being good neighbors, not only in Augusta but throughout Maine. We really want this signature landmark preservation project to be a community asset which everyone enjoys.”
A new wharf, walking trails, and public access to the historic site are guaranteed by provisions of the sale.
The wharf area and levee on the Arsenal property were cleaned up by the procurement of a Save America’s Treasure grant, coupled with a financial match by the state in a joint city-state Capital Riverfront Improvement District effort. That initiative was spearheaded by Elaine Clark, former state Bureau of General Services director, which started some nine years ago.
It took the vision of Niemann to see the potential of the Arsenal property. Working with state and local government, he devoted himself to the project, and after meeting with the governor there was no turning back.
“Without Tom’s persistence, leadership and vision, the redevelopment of the arsenal in Augusta would not be happening,” said Sen. Libby Mitchell, who helped lead the effort to pass the state tax credit for the Arsenal property project. She also credited the governor with opening his door to project planners, helping to back the project.
The redevelopment of the eight granite-block buildings and nearly 20 acres of the former federal arms repository is predicted to help launch a renaissance of Augusta’s downtown.
“We in Augusta are waking up to see that our sense of place is the Kennebec River,” said Mayor Katz. “I want to be standing by the river 20 years from now, hopefully with my grandchildren, to see not only this project come to fruition, but all the other projects we expect to happen, with this as a catalyst.”
Though the Arsenal is located across the river from downtown Augusta, the scale of activity that is projected to happen with the redevelopment project could very well be a tremendous catalyst.
Niemann’s personal experiences in renovating mills in North Carolina are a testament to the fact that the ripple effect of investing in a project invigorates the surrounding businesses, as it infuses money into the economy and creates new business opportunities. According to Niemann, he started out with $40 million in investment; now over $200 million has been invested in the tobacco mill downtown renovation project in North Carolina.
“We have a thriving historic downtown community in NC,” said Niemann. “Imagine a boutique hotel, signature restaurants, a coffee shop, unique office space, a public wharf, great walking and hiking trails, condominiums and apartments, and more, all here on 20 acres of pristine, green, rolling hills overlooking the Kennebec River, with an incredible view of the statehouse and beautiful downtown Augusta. We are committed to a triple-bottom-line approach to community development which stresses historic preservation, environmental preservation, environmental sustainability, and community equity.”
“I think any new development that excites interest in the riverfront area is a positive thing,” said Stacy Gervais of Stacy’s Hallmark gift shop in the center of downtown. Stacy’s Hallmark has been a recognizable landmark in Augusta for 34 years, since Gervais’s father first opened the store bearing his daughter’s name. Over the years they have weathered economic changes by reinventing themselves with different products and always serving the customers’ needs. When big box stores moved into Maine, they lost a lot of business to mega-centers like Wal-Mart and Staples. With unwavering enthusiasm, Gervais moved forward with her father, Richard Cummings, by being a mainstay in the community. “Shop for the people you love with the people you know,” is the Stacy’s motto.
“Our goal is to be the place our customers start looking for what they might want,” said Gervais. “If we don’t have what you are looking for, we will do our best to help you find it somewhere else. That willingness to serve the customers’ needs and not just make a sale is what I believe sets us apart.”
“Our niche has always been in greeting cards,” said Cummings who was a Hallmark Sales Manager before buying his own store. “And Stacy has a gift for bringing in what young people are looking for. She’s got a gift for running the business.”
“I grew up in this store. There is something special about shopping where you live, in your community,” said Gervais. “We value that human connection.”
Stacy meets informally with other business leaders to discuss issues pertinent to Augusta. She’s committed to her community and is working to see it progress, hoping that the novelty of big box stores is beginning to wear thin and that people will want to rediscover downtown. Helping to revitalize a community takes an investment of time, energy, and sometimes a shift in attitude.
“You have to believe in it — in what you’re doing,” said Gervais. “When I have a down day, I remind myself how lucky I am.”
As customers filtered in and out of the store, each one was approached with a smile and a warm greeting, asking if they needed assistance. As they made their purchases they left with a good memory of Stacy’s.
“It’s about our neighbors, our community,” said Gervais. “That’s what we believe in, and that’s what it will take to revitalize Augusta.”
Last spring the Children’s Discovery Museum reopened with a new look and outlook. Even museum officials were surprised by the popularity of their project as almost a thousand people visited the museum before the official opening.
“Early childhood development is so important. I’m a mother of two; for me this place really is for them,” said Kelly Byron who volunteered nonstop to get the museum back on its feet. “And the community has been so great, volunteering time, materials, and labor to the project.”
On the opening day, wide-eyed children packed the two-level museum, enjoying the new atmosphere and eagerly partaking in new interactive exhibits.
“We decided to make the museum more of a hands-on learning experience,” said Babs Wheelden who teaches art part time at Kent’s high school and volunteered to help redesign the museum. “There really wasn’t anywhere for children in the Augusta area to go. Now there is. It took ‘a village’ to do it.”
The museum also houses a mock grocery store, healthy restaurant, and bank, giving lifelong learning experiences to children.
“The community has been so supportive of this effort, it’s wonderful. Towns need places for children to interact and learn,” said Governor Baldacci at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. “This is a special place for these children, their families and the community. Downtowns are the heart and soul of communities; they give them their character and identity. Redeveloping the waterfront, redesigning this museum, along with other projects along the way, is reinvigorating the community and will bring people back downtown.”
Augusta’s young professionals are declaring that they too are an important part of the community and want to partake in helping to revitalize it.
Cynergy, a new group of young professionals located in the Augusta area, celebrated their formation and plans for the future during a networking party last June.
We’re really excited to get Cynergy off the ground and formally introduce ourselves to the community,” said Co-Chair Rick Redmond. “It’s important for people to know that Cynergy is really all about connecting our members with each other, with established professionals and with opportunities that make life a little better for everyone in our community.”
Over 200 people, mostly between the ages of 20 and 40, were gathered at the Kennebec Arsenal complex on the banks of river listening to rock n’ roll and enjoying Maine’s quality of life.
“The message I heard tonight is that people want to be a part of what is happening, and they want to see it grow,” said Cynergy Co-Chair Jean Claveau of Bangor Savings Bank. “We intend to get more involved, volunteering in the community and civic activities. We have a mentoring project in the works with Coney High School and the Chamber of Commerce. We will be doing more social networking and professional development. We are living in a new economy, which presents many new challenges as well as new opportunities. My father worked at the same job for 25 years; now we change employment on a regular basis. We need to connect with each other to discover more opportunities for our community and our futures. That’s what Cynergy is all about — a partnership with people that have experience and energy.”
Since he was first elected, the governor has been working to establish a foundation for the state to move forward in this innovative global economy.
“You are a part of that foundation,” he told the audience at the Cynergy launch. “Today, in this technological age, where you can connect anywhere and go anywhere, Maine offers a quality of life and resources that are second to none. Maine is becoming a quality destination. Your views, your vision, your future matters to me. I want you to know that we are continuing to invest in you.”
The state recently passed a bill to provide REALIZE!Maine with $75,000 over two years, of which at least 50 percent will go to regional groups like Cynergy. REALIZE!Maine is now a program of the Maine Development Foundation (MDF) that works to attract more young working-age people to the state and support those who are currently here. It started with the governor’s Summit on Youth Migration in 2004 and was transferred from the Governor’s Office to MDF in 2005.
“It’s great to see and to be able to encourage so many young entrepreneurs here in Augusta,” said Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce President Peter Thompson during the launch party. KVC has partnered with Cynergy.
“I was initially attracted to Maine for the obvious quality of life and the work/life balance I saw among my peers. Now, as a mother of two small children, I find I can run a business while also enjoying that very quality of life, provide jobs to other people in the state, and grow a small company! All the resources I need are here, and every year I continue to discover new ones. I have had my company in two other states, and nothing compares,” said Gabrielle Melchionda, founder of Mad Gabs, a personal care products company.
As more Augusta citizens are becoming engaged in their community, they are influencing policy to make the city a destination center of historic merit. With the Arsenal, Fort Western, the Capitol, and other unique buildings, the potential is great. The city’s Historic Preservation Commission envisions a walking tour along the capital’s streets, to view historic sties. The wharf from the Arsenal has been recommended for expansion, so a full-service marina could be put in place, welcoming mariners and tour boats.
The city’s ongoing developing plan emphasizes the look and feel of Augusta, now and in the future.
“Efforts to make Augusta look what I might call more stately are a good thing,” said Lester Wilkinson, Jr., who is working on the city’s comprehensive plan.
With a new high school, and the old one destined for renovation, a new bridge, a new YMCA, housing projects, the Arsenal project, a cutting-edge cancer care treatment center, and community members stepping forward to help on various projects, working with state and local government, balanced growth is under way in the capital. The city’s character is beginning to shine along the riverbank once again, enhancing Maine’s quality of life.