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Sponsored by: City of Augusta

City of Augusta

Photo courtesy of the City of Augusta Cushnoc Brewing Co., a wood-fired pizza brewpub at 243 Water St., Augusta, prepares for a night of drawing diners — and their dollars — to the city’s downtown.

Capital returns to Maine’s capital city.

Augusta may not be eating Portland’s lunch, but it’s nibbling around the edges. No longer dormant at sundown, Maine’s capital city is reclaiming a long-lost urban energy.

“I’ve always felt that the development of downtown Augusta was inevitable,” says Tobias Parkhurst, co-owner of Cushnoc Brewing Co., a wood-fired pizza brewpub on Water Street. “There are only 50 capitals in America. We are one of them.”

Many people’s image of Augusta is dominated by the capitol dome and the gauntlet of Western Avenue franchises. But several blocks away, the downtown is bringing flashes of earlier vibrancy back to this riverside city.

Pointing to Faneuil Hall in Boston as inspiration, Augusta Mayor David Rollins believes a phoenix-like transition could happen.

“We need some of that pioneer spirit investing in the state capital of Maine. It’s a gem of a place. We have the benefit of location, access to points all over Maine, the midcoast, halfway between Portland and Bangor,” says Rollins.

Just three years ago “people were not coming downtown,” says Betsy Curtis, owner of Betsy’s, a Water Street designer clothing and housewares consignment shop. The closure of the marquee gift shop Stacy’s Hallmark, after 43 years, was “gut-wrenching,” she says.

Enter the Downtown Augusta Alliance. Tasked with reviving the city’s core, it went “above and beyond in economic development, getting businesses down here and cleaning up the street,” Curtis says.

The alliance looked at empty offices above the downtown retail shops and worked with the city to incentivize developers to create market-rate apartments. Living downtown on a remarkable river is a major attraction the city has never taken advantage of it. Until now.

“As soon as we build them, they are filled,” says Rollins.

Augusta’s new status as a federal Opportunity Zone means the city is primed for renewal.

The governor’s designation allows investors to reap significant tax breaks for up to 10 years by investing downtown. “This is a game-changer,” says Downtown Augusta Alliance Executive Director Michael Hall, who worked with State Rep. Matt Pouliot on the initiative.

Augusta also has a ready customer base of state employees and legislative staffers who want to buy and eat locally. In Cushnoc’s first six months, Parkhurst and partners Chris Geerlings, Casey Hynes and James Bass cleared sales they expected would take two years. Parkhurst has since opened a tasting room on the river and plans a brewing annex on Route 3.

Other new dining spots, such as Otto’s on the River and uptown wine bar Circa 1885, attract sophisticated nighttime crowds. The Downtown Diner gives locals a reason to rise and shine.

“It’s an urban environment with different restaurants and entertainment options, and I am living in the middle of it all,” says Keith Luke, Augusta’s deputy director of development services, who moved to Water Street five years ago.

He’s being joined by plenty of new neighbors. The historic Vickery Building is slated to become home for 23 new apartments. Hall estimates downtown apartments will total 57 next year. Rollins envisions 400 to 500 new residents living downtown in years to come.

The promise of more residents downtown, living in modern digs, has created an air of optimism.

“Then you have a walk-in trade and demand that will spur reinvestment into the retail spaces. Hopefully people will invest in old buildings that are in a level of disrepair, convert the upper floor to living, create retail below, and bring these buildings back to life,” Rollins says.

In the pipeline for Water Street’s next phase is a bakery/deli and more retail. Loan programs such as the Tipping Point offer the support entrepreneurs need to take a chance on Augusta. But that is just the tipping point.

“The possibilities are endless,” says Hall.