Rockland’s downtown Main Street: Preserved and reborn

By John Bird | Mar 07, 2011
Photo by: Hjordis Thorvaldsen, Courtesy of Astri Sleeper Main Street, Rockland, during a snowstorm in the 1950s.

There was a popular refrain when I was growing up in Rockland during the 1940s and 1950s: “Today’s the day [Saturday in the 1940s changed to Friday in the 1950s they all come down, from Union, Hope and ‘Appletown.’” The main attraction? That was the day the stores stayed open until 9 p.m. Sidewalks bustled with families shopping, heading out to supper, catching a movie at the Strand or Park (later renamed the Knox) theaters, or watching a semi-pro league softball game at Schofield White Park, now the ferry terminal site, or a semi-pro baseball contest at the Community Park on Broadway, the site of the recently closed MacDougal School.

By the early 1960s, the semi-pro leagues were gone and movie attendance was in decline, both casualties of the television revolution. By the 1970s, the Knox Theater closed, Rockland’s population was shrinking, the commercial character of downtown was changing, and vacant storefronts began to accumulate on Main Street, replaced in part by small shopping centers in the community’s north end.

Today those edge-of-town venues have expanded to include a big box store, a 10-screen movie complex just over the border in Thomaston and two big box stores and several well known smaller chain operations in Rockland’s north end. Yet, while this suburban shift accelerated and Rockland’ population continued to shrink, downtown Main Street is busier than ever, especially in the summer and shoulder seasons. Vacant storefronts have all but disappeared.

This week “Heroes” focuses on Rockland’s revitalized downtown and salutes the many involved in shaping its character. For this column, “downtown” is defined as the area on Main Street from just south of Park Street to the Rankin Block at the corner of North Main Street.

The prosperous Main Street of the early 1950s included 10 shoe stores, eight clothing stores, four grocery stores, four drugstores, four jewelry stores, four barbershops/salons, three banks, three “five-and-tens”, three hardware stores, three specialty shops, three restaurants and a hot dog stand (the five-and-tens also had lunch counters), three candy stores, two movie theaters, two hotels (one burned in 1952), two florists, two furniture stores, two laundry/dry cleaners, two pool halls (popular hangouts for lots of kids in those days), two auto dealers, one antique dealer, the five-floor Senter Crane department store and the Farnsworth Art Museum. In addition, there were specialty stores dispensing books/magazines and newspapers, printing supplies, radios and television sets, timepieces, auto supplies, and more.

Today’s vibrant Main Street contains a different mix of businesses. Whereas stores stocking basic goods, such as food, drugs, hardware and furniture dominated the 1950s streetscape, Main Street today is anchored by 12 restaurants and cafes, 10 art galleries (two of them on adjacent side streets), a substantially expanded Farnsworth Museum, and the impressively revamped Strand Theater. While a variety of women’s style shops and other specialty stores can be found up and down Main Street, gone from downtown are the grocery and hardware stores. Gone are the shoe and men’s clothing stores, the five and-tens, and the all-purpose department store. Also gone are the dry cleaners, pool halls and florists.

The grocery and hardware stores have either closed or relocated to “suburban” Rockland. Wal-Mart, J.C. Penney and T.J. Maxx have replaced the department store, the five-and-tens and, in part, the all-purpose clothing store.

While the retail face of downtown Rockland has markedly changed since the 1950s and building facades, sidewalks and other infrastructure have been substantially upgraded, the building footprint and overall skyline in the heart of the retail district, from Park to Summer streets, remain essentially unaltered.

“Rockland is to be applauded for keeping its rich architectural heritage intact while reinventing itself as a business community, an impressive achievement,” said Rockland-based architect Jason Merriam.

Downtown Rockland’s successful transition was fueled by many factors, including several noted in other stories in this “Local Heroes” series – the closing of the fish waste processing business in the late 1980s, the revival of Rockland Harbor in the 1990s, the advent of innovative businesses that attracted new people to downtown, the dramatic growth of the Farnsworth Art Museum’s infrastructure and audience, the growth and popularity of major summer events, the revival of the Strand Theater, the game-changing impact of MBNA, the economic impact of Rockland’s windjammer fleet, the vision of the O’Hara family, and the pathfinders in bringing art galleries to the city and in making Rockland a restaurant center.

The most important driver of Rockland’s turnaround over the last two decades has been a significant growth in civic pride and confidence as early successes, such as the resurrection of the Lobster Festival in the early 1990s, led to other successes, like the dramatic increase in boats docking and mooring in Rockland Harbor.

Rockland Share the Pride was formed in 1992 by a group of residents, business people and city officials to promote pride in the community. While the organization did not have a long shelf life, the name, mission and some early successes set a tone that has been picked up and accelerated by other civic groups. Rockland native Alice Knight recalls a program she helped initiate.

“We got 1,000 postcards printed with our logo on it with the intent of letting people know when they were observed doing things that added value to the community,"  she said. "I used up all but a handful of those cards in that effort.”

The organization designated citizens of the month and celebrated their volunteer accomplishments in the local press. A “Wall of Fame” honoring 16 of the community’s most famous citizens was installed at City Hall.

By the mid 1990s, newcomers were investing in downtown buildings. Warren Seelig and Sherry Gibson were among the first. They purchased one of the downtown’s landmark buildings, the three-story Syndicate Block – built in 1893 and site of the H.H. Crie Hardware Store in my youth (more recently True Value Hardware) – in 1994 and spent a year renovating the building before reopening in 1995.

“Our main objective was to preserve the integrity of the building by retaining the high ceilings, keeping the upstairs woodwork intact and opening up the boarded skylights,” said Sherry.

But by far the most noticed renovation was removing the large panels on the Main Street façade and restoring the windows. The couple drew praise from many quarters for that change alone. The building now houses Rock City Coffee & Books and Sherry’s style shop, the Black Parrot, on the first floor and a variety of professional tenants on the upper two floors.

Following the Syndicate Block renovation came the purchase and remodeling of two other nearby buildings, a former bank one block to the north converted to the Harbor Square Gallery and a two-story former furniture and appliance store across the street from the Syndicate Block. The ground floor hosts Rustica, one of the downtown’s many popular restaurants, and the Mulford Art Gallery.

The southern quadrant of Main Street has witnessed two other building transformations in more recent years, the Brooks Drug Store becoming Planet Toys, and the three-story Spear Block becoming Camden National Bank’s Rockland home.


Investments pay off

In addition to building purchases and overhauls, many other façade and streetscape improvements have been made along Main Street, thanks to the city’s decision in the late 1970s to employ a community development director. Rodney Lynch, soon to retire and the director since 1998, has had unprecedented success during his tenure, securing to date 36 publicly-funded grants totaling $4.5 million. That money has leveraged an additional $1.2 million in private investment.

The largest portion of that $5.7 million has been invested on Main and adjacent side streets to upgrade sidewalks and crosswalks and make them handicap accessible and on façade improvements to 16 buildings under a program that requires building owners to match the grant funds dollar for dollar (part of the private investment noted above).

Until recently, streetscape projects were concentrated on the Main Street area from Pleasant to Summer streets and on Limerock Street between Union and Main streets, as well as improvements to Sandy Beach Park in the south end. In 2010, Rockland was awarded a $600,000 Community Development Block Grant, the only one given by the Maine Department of Economic Development that year for major urban infrastructure improvements. These funds are currently being spent to carry streetscape improvements all the way to North Main Street by this summer.

Efforts are currently in progress to secure funding for nine more building façade upgrades and for improvements to the Thorndike parking lot behind Main Street on the water side.

“We are also seeking $1.2 million for additional streetscape improvements from Limerock to Pleasant streets," said Rodney. "We might get the funding before I leave in July, but for sure that project will be carried out on the next director’s watch.”

He said: “This is the best job I’ve ever had, and a major reason for that is the support I’ve received from all of the city managers and councilors I’ve worked for and the partnerships our office has formed with other organizations, most notably the chamber of commerce, Rockland Downtown Alliance and [its successor] Rockland Main Street.”

Jeff Charland, President of Rockland Main Street, echoes the partnership theme: “We have forged a culture of collaboration in downtown Rockland. Rockland Main Street has great internal teamwork, spearheaded by our energetic executive director, Lorain Francis, and our committed board of volunteers organized into four hardworking committees. In turn we have a great working relationship with the Pen Bay Regional Chamber [of Commerce] and City Hall, starting with Rodney Lynch who has delivered great results and is a pleasure to work with.”

He said: “Even before we were granted membership in the ‘Main Street’ program two years ago [one of nine Maine communities and 2,200 nationwide], the downtown business community was doing a lot of great things together. Now the downtown is really taking off!”

Executive director Lorain Francis agrees. “We are beyond the tipping point on Main Street.”

Rick Rockwell’s purchase and ambitious renovation of the three-story Hewitt Block, built in 1853, currently in progress, reinforces Lorain’s observation.

“Rockland has always been my emotional home," he said. "The roots of that feeling go back to when my grandfather began his fishing business in Port Clyde eight decades ago. Four decades later the business moved to Rockland. Now that I can spend more time in the area, I want to help Rockland continue to do great things.”

He said: “I want to return the Hewitt Block to the classical look it had a 100 years ago. The building’s location in the northern end of the downtown also appeals to me. Main Street’s evolution won’t be complete until what has happened in the center of town is extended to the Ferry Terminal and beyond.”

Rick plans to open a restaurant on the lower level in the back fronting the Thorndike parking lot. The first floor on the Main Street side will house a men and women’s clothing store (yes, men’s clothing returns to Main Street). The second floor will house offices; the top floor will contain two studio apartments designed to attract visiting artists.

At the end of the adjacent block to the north of Rick Rockwell’s building sits one of Rockland’s newest businesses, Fiore: Artisan Olive Oils and Vinegars, owned by Pat and Nancy O’Brien. Pat’s comments about coming to Rockland provide a vivid example of downtown Rockland’s appeal and the culture of collaboration noted earlier.

“After a successful opening in Bar Harbor in 2009, we began looking for a second coastal location," she said. "We first visited Rockland in January 2010, attracted by, among other things, the volume of high quality restaurants and the fact they seemed to do a good business in the dead of winter. We found a good location, signed a lease in February and began planning for a May opening. That’s when we discovered how collaborative a community Rockland is. Rockland Main Street, the Chamber and City Hall could not have been more welcoming and helpful. As a result we opened on time, and many of our initial customers were people from those same organizations who had ‘shown us the ropes’ initially. Nancy and I could not be happier with the start of what we hope will be a very long relationship with Rockland.”

“Local Heroes” is proud to salute and thank all of the people and organizations noted in this column and the many others who have played a role in downtown Main Street’s impressive renewal, perhaps best summarized by the words of Rockland’s former mayor, Tom Molloy, and first district congresswoman Chellie Pingree.

“Thanks to the efforts of a lot of people, Rockland has become a destination, not a place you bypass [by taking Route 90 between Warren and Rockport] or pass-through on the way to someplace else,” said Tom.

Chellie said: “I think Rockland’s tremendous community spirit and the willingness of people to work together is a big part of why the city has been successful in redeveloping the downtown without losing sight of its heritage.”


John Bird is a retired independent school educator and leader and nationally recognized consultant to nonprofit organizations who grew up in Rockland and now lives in Spruce Head.  He currently serves as board chairman of the Island Institute and as a board member of several other organizations, including the Farnsworth Art Museum and the Lincoln Street Center for Arts and Education.


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