Historic & Booming, Downtown Belfast Has Something For All Of Us 

When you ask Belfast city officials about their downtown, it’s not surprising they’re beaming with pride when they answer. “The downtown of Belfast is the downtown of all of Waldo County,” City Manager Joe Slocum said. You won’t hear much disagreement from three term Mayor, and lifelong Belfast resident, Walter Ash. “Life is good here. Life is good.”A big reason why life is so good in Belfast right now is a downtown that’s booming. Ash has spent most of his life in Belfast and says he remembers a time when things weren’t so great, a time when the chicken industry was king here. “I was here when the bay ran red,” Ash said, “you know when it was pretty nasty. The chicken industry, the slaughter houses that were down there, the shoe shops.”Just a few short years ago the major downtown cluster had as many as a dozen empty storefronts. Fast forward to now and we could only find one. Thomas Kitteridge was recently hired by the city as Economic Development Director, the first person to hold that title since the 80’s. Kitteridge has seen much of the downtown resurgence during his watch. “I think the biggest thing is they’ve seen other businesses start and they’ve decided to take the plunge and start their own business,” Kitteridge said. “We’ve had new restaurants, marine architects, art supply. We’ve got an underwear store. You can buy underwear in downtown Belfast. You really couldn’t do that before.”The revitalized downtown is attracting businesses and jobs in droves to the heart of Waldo County. After several failed attempts to reopen the old Stinson Cannery on the Belfast waterfront, they found a permanent resident with the Front Street Shipyard moving in last year. “Just within the last year a group of boat builders from the mid coast region, Brooklyn Boat Yard, Rockport Marine, as well as Kenway Corporation of Augusta, partnered together to buy the site,” Kitteridge explains. “Tear down some buildings, put up some new buildings, basically an investment of $10 million to refurbish and build large ships.”J.B. Turner, President of the Front Street Shipyard, says several things attracted them here, the flatland and deep water to name two. “But also it’s located next to a great city that has all the things that boaters and recreational people want to have,” Turner said. “It’s got great restaurants, hotels if they’re sick of staying on the boat.”Through all the recent growth, Belfast has managed to stay true to its history, a history that Megan Pinette, President of the Belfast Historical Society, knows quite a bit about. “The charm about Belfast, and I think the appeal, is that it remains one of the most intact brick sort of mid-Victorian downtowns in the state of Maine.”The people working at the historical society have made it easier for people to get acquainted with the city’s history. They’ve created a “Museum in the Streets,” 30 panels located throughout downtown giving visitors a window into the past. “Well, our downtown really is the jewel in the crown as far as Belfast,” Pinette said. “I mean we have beautiful out country, but people do come in to downtown, not just to shop, but also look at the beautiful architecture, learn about the history.”Another major addition to the downtown is the $1.5 million Harbor Walk project that they hope will tie everything together. “This walkway is going to connect all those things,” Kitteridge explains. “You can walk from one end of the downtown all the way to the footbridge, over to east Belfast, and eventually connect with our rail trail that we bought rail line for that goes up towards Waldo county. So it’s about connectivity and putting all those nice things together to make it something even bigger.”Though many things have changed here in Belfast, those who know this place best say the people here have never lost sight of who they are. “We’re a little eclectic, we’re a little offbeat,” Slocum says, “sometimes we’re just downright ordinary ornery Mainers, and we’re happy with that. But it’s a diversified community and people, and it’s a diversified economy, which has really helped us grow and will continue to help us grow.”