Short Relief: From Cortina to Congress Street

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Several years ago, I was lucky enough to go skiing in Cortina d’Ampezzo. Cortina is a town in the Dolomite Mountains of northern Italy near the Austria border. In addition to the beautiful natural and man-made scenery, the warmth of the Italian people and the good food, one of the things that I liked best about that visit is the Italian custom of passaggiatta.

In the evening, after dinner, everyone gets out for a leisurely stroll around the center of town.

It’s good for the digestion and gives you an opportunity to socialize with your neighbors. The shops open and you can browse the windows or go in and pick up whatever it is that you may need to complete your day: a cigar, a bottle of wine, a piece of cheese, or maybe a nice Italian suit.

In my case, I bought a fine fur felt Borsalino hat. It has served me well ever since. It reminds me of our vacation whenever I wear it.

On a recent Friday night,  Portland’s Congress Street reminded me of Italy, Cortina, and the passaggiatta. Maybe it was the unseasonably mild evening. Maybe it was the confluence of Art Night Out, the Redclaws’ debut, opening night of Portland Stage’s production of a Christmas Carol, the craft show at Maine College of Art and Maine State Ballet’s Nutcracker at Merrill Auditorium.

Whatever the cause, throngs of people were strolling up and down the street. The restaurants and galleries were packed. People were even sitting at tables outside. There was no sign of a recession anywhere in sight. We had a great dinner at 555, right across the street from the L.L. Bean Outlet Store.

The week before, I went to the outlet and completed about 90 percent of my holiday shopping. They were having a great sale: 30 percent off their already reasonable prices. I managed to get things that I think will please everyone, from my outdoorsman brother in Vermont, to my city slicker father in New Jersey.

Bean’s is Maine’s traditional outfitter, the place where you can find whatever you’re looking for. When I started visiting the state in the early 70s, I would always try to make a midnight run to the old flagship store in Freeport, the one that seemed like a big old barn.

It was fun to explore late at night. The store was quieter and less crowded than during the day, and it was easier to imagine that you were the first to discover some obscure piece of equipment whose function was far from obvious. Not that I would ever have had use for such a thing, given that I was a suburbanite at the time.

Congress Street is in transition these days. The library renovation is progressing nicely. Its new glass facade adds welcome interest and openness to the structure. All along, there are new storefronts and restaurants, and many galleries. I don’t know if any of this is the result of the City’s facade improvement program, but the improvements are welcome, however they were being funded.

All of this activity on Congress Street contributes to my disappointment over the news that the Bean Outlet will be closing next September. The stories I’ve seen report that the store remains profitable notwithstanding the current recession. Reportedly, L.L. Bean is closing the store to focus attention on the flagship store in Freeport.

I asked some of the other store owners on Congress Street how they felt about L.L. Bean’s departure. They were not concerned because Bean customers were not their type and they thought it likely that some equally-if-not-better retailer would fill the spot. When I asked him, the city’s Economic Development Director wasn’t concerned either.

The loss of Bean’s is a shame. It’s an anchor and an attraction. Because L.L. Bean is such a part of Maine. Because, following Cadillac Mountain Sports, its departure will leave the corridor less diverse and economically resilient.

Art is an important part of the Congress Street revitalization. Artists are often the vanguard of urban renewal. But government needs to modulate the cycles of revival and decay by ensuring a healthy mix of tenants on Congress Street.

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Halsey Frank is a Portland resident, attorney and former chairman of the Republican City Committee.