Friday, December 13, 2013
Paul H. Mills
I SPEND MOST OF my time at a second-floor office at the the corner of Broadway and Main streets in downtown Farmington. I'm also president of the Farmington Downtown Association, so I'm understandably a partisan of this neighborhood.
Unlike many downtowns in Maine, this is a place that seems to have had some sustainability. To be sure, there's always some empty office and business spaces for sale or rent -- right now more than 25,000 square feet, or about 15 percent or so of the overall space -- but it seems to be a terrarium that's attracted a lot of interest.
Last year, for example, the Maine Development Foundation chose it as the location of its annual downtown conference, and it wound up being the best attended it had ever hosted.
Though the customer base for downtown Farmington is largely local, tourists do make more than just a cameo appearance. The fall foliage season brings a regular fleet of tour buses. Typically, they drop by for an hour each noon time, midway through a day for them that began in Bar Harbor and will have its destination in North Conway.
Many of them comment about the offerings of local products found in the downtown establishments. They prize the Maine-made products at the furniture, jewelry, farmers market grocery and clothing stores, for example. An expanding group of art and artisan establishments also captivate our many visitors.
For those who linger a bit longer, there's a seven-screen movie theater, called "Narrow Gauge Cinema," whose theme recalls the railroad history of the region. (A shortcoming, of course, is that the railroad vanished from the area more than 35 years ago.)
So why or how is Farmington's downtown seemingly more viable than most? A few of the factors are a commitment by the community, walking distance proximity to a state university with more than 2,000 students and alert recognition of the potential of state and federal infrastructure funding.
Part of the answer, however, is both old and basic. Back in the 1790s -- the same decade when Pierre L'Enfant was designing the parks and boulevards of our nation's capital -- two Connecticut natives, a hotel owner named John Church and a physician named Aaron Stoyall, were doing the same in Farmington.
The outcome for Church and Stoyall, who owned most of the land that was the footprint for the current downtown, was to bestow on Farmington two of the wider main streets of any downtown in Maine. Farmington's Main Street itself, for example, is as wide as Manhattan's Broadway just above Times Square.
Thus, when this DNA of street width was encrypted on the map of downtown Farmington, it was genetically predisposed to accommodate a successful neighborhood. The outcome today: Two-way main streets.
Contrast this to most other major Maine communities with narrower main streets. Think of the one-way travel of parts of Congress streets in Portland and Rumford, Lewiston's Lisbon Street, and the main streets of Augusta, Gardiner, Waterville and Skowhegan.
Downtowns overall seem to have been in a decline. The case for viability and against extinction is made, however, perhaps most persuasively in a recent book by Jeff Speck, "The Walkable City." In it, Speck ardently observes:
"The downtown is the only part of the city that belongs to everybody. It doesn't matter where you may find your home; the downtown is yours, too. Investing in the downtown of a city is the only place-based way to benefit all of its citizens at once."
I have occasionally been part of a delegation from the Downtown Association that welcomes the tourist buses to town. Their handshakes often have a European, an Asian or even an Australian grip.
Oh yes, and the next time I greet them and spy one from Connecticut, I'll have this to say, "Thank you for the two Connecticut natives who gave us such wide streets to provide a foundation for Farmington's Downtown."
Paul H. Mills is a Farmington attorney known for his analyses and historical understanding of public affairs in Maine. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.