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From desolate to bustling, how one Maine town is setting an example for American revitalization

transforming american towns
Posted at 10:07 AM, Oct 25, 2022
and last updated 2022-10-25 11:07:43-04

BIDDEFORD, Maine — When people travel or pick a place to live, they sometimes seek out the most prominent towns and cities in every state. However, places once not considered are now shape-shifting into opportunities.

As an outsider, it's hard to imagine this town of Biddeford, Maine, empty and isolated, but now-mayor Alan Casavant was born and raised here and he remembers it vividly.

"Think of the landscape 10 years ago: empty storefronts just looked dilapidated, you name it," Casavant recalled.

An old mill town that sat quiet for decades has transformed over the years. It's become a model for how other American cities can adapt.

"When I got elected mayor 11 years ago, one of the things I wanted to do was try to bring the city back to the days when there was a lot of community pride and things were booming," Casavant said. "We began to put in new lighting, new cobblestone, new sidewalks, flowers, holiday lights. We just boosted it and ya know what happened? People loved it."

The key, it seemed, was looking at the town as a whole and not building by building or street by street.

"The opportunity of a place like Biddeford can happen in any small place," said Don Lindgren, the owner of Rabelais in Biddeford.

These detail-oriented changes, in combination with the redevelopment of old textile mills, sparked revitalization and investment in the city.

"But that was a new thing and it was gonna change the entire nature of the town," Lindgren said.

The Pepperell Mill Campus was one of the first big projects to spark the movement and like so many other entities, it was funded by developers who saw good bones and opportunities. Rabelais is a rare food and drink bookstore inside the mill alongside dozens of other creatives and companies. Moving from Portland, owner Don Lindgren took a chance.

"When we moved here, one of the places that came with us was our client base of customers that were coming from other parts of the country," Lindgren said.

That's exactly what the trend looked like starting with Element Coffee Shop downtown.

"When that first opened, I remember clearly people saying, 'Why do we have to pay that much for coffee? We got Dunkin Donuts. We don't need it; no one's going to go there.' Well, people did in droves," Casavant said.

Delilah Poupore is the executive director of Heart of Biddeford and one of the brains behind the transformation.

"This is a great accomplishment getting an awesome coffee shop, but this is what helped seed the next restaurant, which helped the next one which helped the next one which is now in the New York times in an article," Poupore said. "There were 27 vacancies from that end of Main Street to the other, and now, there are about two."

They took the assets they had and asked themselves what they needed. A new beautiful hotel, the Lincoln, filled one gap.

"We are able to take advantage of the gorgeous architecture of the Mill building," said Rebecca Johns, the general manager of the Lincoln. "I've met so many people who have actually worked in this building. It's really been quite a 360 bringing the community back in."

Transforming a city like Biddeford has finally intrigued its lifelong residents and now created curiosity for new people.

"If you build it really, they will come and we're proof," Johns said.

This transformation is just one great example of what can happen when you take something old and make it new again.