Bath group 'Over the Moon' about 15 years of downtown revitalization

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BATH — Born 15 years ago as one of four original Main Street Maine communities, Main Street Bath approaches its anniversary with several honors and a thriving downtown on its record.

The organization will mark the occasion with “Over the Moon, Under the Stars,” a tented gala at Library Park to be held from 7-10:30 p.m. Aug. 13.

It’s one of many activities the nonprofit corporation will organize throughout the year, with help and support from volunteers and city staff. Bath Heritage Days in July and An Old-Fashioned Christmas are among the highlights, along with the annually updated Bath map and brochure.

MSB was preceded by the Bath Business Association, whose members were “really strongly behind” bringing the Main Street program to Maine, MSB Director Jake Korb said July 15.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation originated that program, which is geared toward revitalizing downtowns to bolster both the aesthetics and economic stability of their commercial districts, and enhance the quality of life for residents and visitors alike, according to visitbath.com.

“They were trying to combat urban renewal and urban sprawl,” Korb explained, “and historic downtown buildings like ours were being torn down, and strip mall concepts were being put up in what were originally town centers.”

The work of area volunteers – many of whom remain involved in MSB – led to Bath being one of only four Maine communities chosen to kick off the Main Street program in the state. The program was facilitated by three years of revitalization training and technical assistance provided by the Maine Downtown Center.

“It provided a toolbox and a framework for revitalization,” Korb said, noting that while the business association was heavily focused on the business community, “the Main Street program is really built on collaboration between municipal government, citizens who live in the community,” and businesses.

“And it provided a structure for us to really go forth with the committees,” said MSB President Gayle Hunt, referring to MSB’s promotions, organization, design, and economic vitality groups.

Korb compared MSB to a three-legged stool, supported by the community, businesses and municipal government. “Without one of the pieces,” he said, “we just don’t work.”

Both Korb and Hunt praised MSB’s volunteer workforce of between 80 and 100 people, who are involved in committees and day-to-day operations. But the number of people who put time into events like Mayfair and Autumnfest “is huge,” Korb said. “It’s hundreds of people that are contributing to the effort.”

A nod to that support is largely what the Aug. 13 gala is about, he added, “a great time to get the community together and celebrate” the work that volunteers have done for Bath.

The 2001 investment into Bath’s future has paid dividends several times. The city was named one of the country’s “Dozen Distinctive Designations” in 2005. The American Planning Association named Bath’s Front Street one of 10 “Great Streets of 2009,” for showcasing the character and planning that go into communities of rich and lasting value.

Three years later, MSB was one of five organizations across the country to receive the 2012 Great American Main Street Award. And this year, USA Today named Bath No. 9 among the 10 best Main Streets in the country.

“It was something we were pretty proud to be part of,” Korb said. At 15, “We’re still a program that Main Street communities in the state of Maine look to for advice on ways to do things.”

Hunt, who owns the Ornament Home & Garden store at 70 Front St., said she notices the people who return to the city and remark on how much the downtown has changed, “and how we have this wonderful mix of stores and offerings for people, and how friendly downtown Bath is.”

Instead of being a place people would drive through on their way to somewhere else, she said, revitalization has drawn people into the city to experience the treasures it offers.

“It has brought more business owners, with new offerings, to Bath,” Hunt said. “We’ve come so far with our downtown that we’re able to attract people to buy homes in Bath. … It really has brought people from other places to our cool little city.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

A summer scene on Front Street, Bath, in 2009, when the American Planning Association named it one of the country’s 10 “Great Streets.”

Gayle Hunt, left, is president and Jake Korb is director of Main Street Bath, which marks its 15th anniversary this year.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.