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AUGUSTA — When Tobias Parkhurst bought a three-story building at 185 Water St. a decade ago, it was because it was cheaper to buy a building downtown — where he wanted to live — than it had been to pay rent where he’d lived in Massachusetts.
A former professional skateboarder who’d returned home to work for his father’s glass business, Oakes & Parkhurst, he’d never owned or renovated a building. “I had no idea what I was doing,” he said.
On top of it, the local narrative was that Water Street was a black hole for commercial ventures.
Three buildings and as many narrative shifts later, Parkhurst sat in the expansive interior of Cushnoc Brewing Co. this week and stressed that he didn’t see downtown’s resurgence a decade ago.
And while the four-block commercial street has come even more alive since he opened the craft brewery and restaurant with partners Chris Geerlings, Casey Hynes and James Bass in October, he deflects credit. His partners, other business owners and developers who have seen the possibilities on Water Street over the past several years are all responsible for the recent success.
He said many who have looked at the four blocks of victorian brick and stone buildings along the Kennebec River are from other places.
“They don’t have the preconceived idea of the lack of possibilities,” he said. “There was this idea that if it hasn’t happened here, it’s not going to happen.”
While two businesses closed on Water Street in the past year or so, 10 have opened, said Michael Hall, executive director of the Augusta Downtown Alliance. Two years ago, when Hall began in the job, there were 17 high-end residential units. Now there are 34. Rents average $900 a month to $2,000.
The apartment vacancy rate is zero and there’s a waiting list.
Hall said a “substantial number” of rental units are planned.
Restaurants are the first draw for foot traffic. The Black & Tan, an Irish bar owned by Augusta Police Officer Chris Shaw, opened at 18 Bridge St. in June 2016. Otto’s by the River, 287 Water St., and wine and tapas bar Circa 1885, 228 Water St., both opened last year.
“The biggest change I’ve noticed is the amount of traffic and the increase in foot traffic,” said Hall, a Water Street resident. “Before, if you were to come down here on a Friday or Saturday night, you were lucky to see 10 cars. Now you’re lucky to find a parking space.”
Catalysts to business development include the Tipping Point loan program, in partnership with Kennebec Savings Bank, started last year to help small property owners downtown renovate and add residential units.
Water Street was named to the National Register of Historic Places last year, making 51 buildings eligible for historic preservation tax credits.
“We've definitely seen an increase in interest from developers looking at properties” because of the designation, Hall said.
Downtown Augusta was “downstreet” to generations of Augusta residents who traveled down the steep hill to shop on Water Street.
In the 1970s it still had two department stores, Chernowksy’s and Adam’s. The 1932 two-story art deco building that’s now the Cushnoc was built as a Kresge’s and housed Stacy’s Hallmark from 1978 until Parkhurst bought it.
Over the years, retail moved to the city’s strip malls, which started popping up in 1961 along Western Avenue, and then big box stores, including the 1.3-million-square-foot Marketplace at Augusta in the north end of the city in the 1990s.
By 1986, when the 76,500-square-foot Key Plaza office building went up on Water Street, the area had evolved from a commercial center to an office and service center.
“Its biggest failure was its continued success,” Parkhurst said. “It was full, but full of offices. There was no reason to come down here after 5.”
Parkhurst and his father, Richard, who also owns downtown property, weren’t the only ones to take a chance on Water Street over the last decade.
Last year, Laura and Jason Gall won a Maine Historic Preservation Honor Award for their renovation of 190 Water St., the former D.W. Adams building, which they’ve owned since 2002.
Kim and Mike Meservey owned the successful Bond Brook Pancake House on Mount Vernon Avenue, but shut it down in 2011 to open the Downtown Diner at 204 Water St., a building owned by Tobias Parkhurst.
Kim Meservey told the Kennebec Journal at the time that people told them they were never going to make it on Water Street, but from the beginning, business was better than at their old strip mall location.
Parkhurst said the diner’s success had an impact many don’t realize.
“They proved you can be a success in downtown Augusta,” he said. “They could be a success wherever they go, but they chose Water Street.”
Parkhurst is conscious of the city’s past — the Cushnoc name comes from the city’s first trading post, which became Fort Western. Patrons at his restaurant can see the 1754 fort across the river from their seats on the restaurant’s mezzanine.
But Parkhurst said it’s also taken fresh eyes to see the possibilities.
Cushnoc Brewing partner Hyde worked at the Liberal Cup in Hallowell; Bass, an attorney and Portland native, moved to and opened a practice in downtown Augusta. Parkhurst met him one morning while they were both digging their cars out of the snow.
Brewer Geerlings most recently worked in Savannah, Ga.
Cushnoc, which serves its own craft beer as well as a rotating menu of Maine beers from other breweries and builds its menu around wood-fired pizza, draws an eclectic crowd.
Parkhurst and Geerlings were surprised at how fast the new restaurant took off after it opened.
Geerlings said they brewed 120 barrels in their first two months, far exceeding their business plan.
Hall said new residents downtown were initially Boomers from the area looking to downsize, but it’s now drawing professionals who work at places like MaineGeneral and Cape Air.
Water Street isn’t a thoroughfare — someone has to be intending to go there to find it.
Hall said that was a negative in the past, but it’s now a positive because it has prodded developers to be more creative.
The grand-scale victorian architecture — some of the buildings constructed by Augusta’s magazine publishers — is a draw, particularly with the river backdrop.
“For a city this size, there’s no other downtown in Maine that looks like this,” he said.
Many of the buildings in the new historic district had already been designated, the most notable the 54,500-square-foot former Romanesque Revival federal building, built with Hallowell granite.
The top business on the wish list is a bakery, he said, as well as some niche retail.
“The retail challenges we face are the same ones every downtown faces, and even the box stores and malls are facing,” he said. “You have to have a niche.”
Merkaba Sol at 153 Water St., and Betsy’s, a formal-ware and home decor business at 223 Water St., are both successful because they have “a built-in audience.”
“You have to know your audience, know who’s in the neighborhood,” he said.
Parkhurst said the narrative has shifted over the decade from “Oh, downtown, that’s a write-off,” to Parkhurst “got all the good deals.”
“Now what you hear is, ‘Everyone always knew it had potential.’” He laughs. “I think that’s really cool.”
NEXT WEEK: The $8.5 million Colonial Theater renovation is seen as the key to revitalize downtown’s historic north end.