Vaughndella Curtis in the food pantry at Freeport Community Services. photo/Chris Busby
Or, what happens when you gentrify an entire town
“The very nature of paradise is that it will be lost.”
— Melissa Coleman, Maine writer, Freeport resident
When I scored an apartment in Freeport a few years ago, I found myself in the midst of a parade of strangers. That’s a common experience for newcomers to any town, but Freeport is different. The stream of people clogging the streets and sidewalks of the village is replenished each day with fresh faces. It took me quite a while to locate a local — a worker, a loiterer, anybody who actually lives here.
Where are the public gathering places? I wondered. What happened to the neighborhood bars and mom-and-pop shops? Where do the teenagers hang out? And why am I the only guy on the sidewalk in this heat not wearing a shirt?
True believers, the future of places like Portland is here, right up the interstate in Freeport, U.S.A.! You’ve heard about gentrifying neighborhoods. Now come see what happens when an entire town gets gentrified! (Warning: it ain’t as pretty as it looks.)
I had a very rudimentary conception of Freeport before I moved here. My sister and her husband once lived in the town’s wooded outskirts, and I remember eating at the bizarro farmhouse McDonald’s in the village following the baptism of my sister’s eldest daughter down the street at St. Jude’s (I’m the child’s nominal godfather). I saw an old psychologist on Upper Mast Landing Road for a minute, and, of course, I knew about the company that made all the boots of my childhood.
About a year before I arrived, my friend Santos brought me and my intern to Bean’s around two in the morning. He used to come up here a lot late at night just to wander around the store, checking out the displays. He and his partner also used to buy L.L. Bean apparel at thrift stores, remove the black markered “X” on the tag using Goo Gone, and return the items for credit. They just did it for fun — both were rather well-off — but it kinda mucked it up for the rest of us, eh, brother-man?
Having arrived straight from Portland’s East Bayside ghetto (and straight from the streets before that), I tried to find some fellow proletarians to pal around with. There wasn’t a serf in sight. There’s a housing complex near my apartment that I’ve been told is “low income,” but as my old street partner Kosmo remarked when he saw the parking lot, “Pretty nice cars for a low-income dwelling, don’t you think?”
I knew from past experience that there’re always a few paupers at the Catholic church. Not so at St. Jude’s — or if there are poor parishioners, they keep an Armani suit or a nice dress in the closet for Sunday mornings.
Turns out I just wasn’t looking in the right places. I found an article published by The Forecaster in 2013 headlined, “More and more, Freeport residents falling into poverty — and getting pushed out by town’s high cost of living.” A big reason I never saw any local proles around is that most of Freeport’s working class was forced out years ago, either to make way for more chain stores or in search of shelter they could afford on chain-store wages.
Forecaster reporter Will Graff interviewed staff at Freeport Community Services (FCS), a nonprofit on Depot Street that helps the citizens of Freeport and the neighboring rural community of Pownal keep from freezing and starving to death. Hundreds of families were relying on FCS every month for food, clothing, and heating oil. Seniors on fixed incomes and children suffer the most.
“We have a lot of working poor,” Bob Lyman, then FCS’s executive director, told the community newspaper. “One out of every four kids in this area qualifies for the free lunch [program at school].” FCS operates in a “designated poverty center,” Graff reported. It’s also in the center of the shopping mecca that’s made Freeport famous worldwide — FCS’s Thrift Shop sells donated clothing, footwear, housewares and furniture within sight of the L.L. Bean Outlet and two blocks from the flagship store.
I finally did find some locals, and the tales they told me about Freeport’s past help explain how a town full of hard-working, fun-loving people became a poster child for gentrification and alienation. But that’s only half the story. The retail boom that revived Freeport’s village in the early 1980s is now what pundits are calling the “retail apocalypse” — the mass closure of brick-and-mortar chain stores nationwide as consumers increasingly shop online. This slow-motion catastrophe, also known as “the Amazon effect,” is already hollowing out downtown Freeport. Strolling around the village with my dog Bella last month, I counted about two dozen primo retail spaces with “for lease” signs in their dusty windows.
Having survived the collapse of American manufacturing in the 1970s, Freeport is facing doom once again. Why? As Bill Clinton’s campaign guru, James Carville, famously put it back in 1992, it’s “the economy, stupid.” But dumb political decisions at every level of government have literally paved the way for these problems. The latest solution being proposed to save the town from disaster is to basically double-down on the tourist trade. But even during the boom times, that trade did little to benefit the townspeople, who sacrificed their picturesque village for this swindle.
So at the end of this story I offer a few ideas to make Freeport a livable and affordable community again for the workers who actually keep the place running. I do so humbly, knowing there’s only so much a town of 8,000-odd souls can do to fend off the ravages of global corporate capitalism.
“People call me and it would break your heart,” Sue Mack, who coordinated family services at FCS, told The Forecaster six years ago. “We can’t pretend to fix everybody’s problems. We’re more about helping people identify problems. Some things we can try to fix, but we can’t fix poverty.”
Even in Freeport, U.S.A.
A vintage postcard image of Freeport’s Main Street circa 1912.
One of the first Freeport natives I befriended was a guy I’ll call Jack, who lives in the “low income” development by my place. (Jack initially spoke to me on the record, but got cold feet shortly before deadline, citing fear of “blowback” from other locals; like I said, it’s a small town.) When Jack was just 16, growing up in an old A-frame on Pownal Road, he got a job at the Eastland Shoe factory, where the Hilton Garden Inn now stands. Founded in 1955, Eastland was one of many footwear companies in Freeport, and Freeport was one of Maine’s many shoe-making towns. In fact, as late as the 1980s, the one-syllable state led the nation in shoe production.
“There was all kinds of them,” Vaughndella Curtis told me by phone, speaking of Freeport’s shoe factories. “There were big ones and there were some little small ones owned by just a couple of people in town, just little things. George Denny started one. He bought E.E. Taylor out. … Hang on, I’ll have to let you go. I have somebody at the door.”
Vaughndella was born back in ’32, and is Freeport’s patron saint, possibly even a Jedi. She’s served her hometown in too many ways to count. Here’s a fun one: When the Freeport Historical Society needs help identifying a relic of days past, they ask Vaughndella what it is. I suspect if I hung out with her long enough she’d teach me how to levitate.
Jack’s kid brother compared Freeport in the ’70s to present-day Richmond, Maine. “You’d see regular working people hanging out on Main Street at night, smoking butts, drinking, people rolling up in their cars, partying. I remember one night we were all parked next to where Bean’s is today — we used to call that part of town Midtown — had a keg and everything ’til the cops finally showed up and chased us off, and there were some nasty cops around back in those days.”
Another native told me the Midtown crowd might include as many as a hundred or so local hippies, plus a smattering of hometown boys just back from Vietnam who were liable to tackle the town constables when provoked. “People didn’t take the police seriously back then,” this source, still skittish about the law, said. “If the crowd was too big, they’d always threaten to call the National Guard.”
Jack said there were only two cops in Freeport back then, the one in charge being Chief Boudreau. I’d have thought twice before going toe-to-toe with Herman Boudreau. According to his obit, he was a lumberjack, a construction worker, a middleweight boxer and a heavily decorated World War II soldier before he joined the Maine State Police in 1945.
“I liked him,” Vaughndella said of Boudreau, whose stint as Freeport’s top cop was relatively short. “He came to my house sometimes for breakfast or stuff — he didn’t drink coffee. But the guys at the time he was here didn’t like him much,” she said. The chief and his officer “didn’t get along with the kids. The young people didn’t have a lot to do, just hang out on Main Street, and the police were always driving them out.”
(After retiring from law enforcement and private-security work, Boudreau and his wife spent two years helping homeless people at a shelter in Brooklyn, N.Y., then two decades running a nursery school in Brunswick, where the kids called him Mr. Policeman or Pepere. National Public Radio aired a segment about his military service shortly after he died in 2013, at age 93.)
In their free time, the boys of Freeport played baseball. This has always been a big baseball town. The Freeport Historical Society devotes a section of its website to a local history of the national pastime, beginning with a game played in 1889 to celebrate the town’s centennial. It was a much faster sport back then: no foul balls (a hit’s a hit), one out per inning side, and you could throw someone out by pegging them with the ball. Good times.
Locals I spoke with said there were more ballfields in Freeport when they were growing up. “They always had a big ballgame down in the Castle field,” Vaughndella said (more about the Castle in a minute). Jack and his brother and their buddies also spent a lot of time down at the docks in South Freeport, where the “mucky-mucks” live. They fished there for blues or mackerel or pogies, and casted for trout in the town’s brooks and ponds.
There was a lot more to do in the village, too. In the ’60s, Jack said, “there was the bowling alley and a movie house on Bow Street right next to the Falcon,” a popular restaurant at the corner of Main, now the site of one of Linda Bean’s lobster tourist traps. Working folk also ate and drank and socialized at places like the School Street Pub, Vinnie’s, Crafts Fair, The Rail, and Pearly Hood’s. The Fourth of July “used to be great,” said Jack. “Great parade, booths. Locals, you know? It was all local back then.”
Unbeknownst to the townspeople at the time, shoemaking in Freeport was already well on its way to becoming another fine exhibit at the Historical Society. By the early ’70s, Maine’s footwear industry was in decline, largely due to cheap imports. The Historical Society notes that when the Freeport Shoe Company closed its Midtown factory in 1972, it was the fifteenth shoe factory shuttered in town since 1968. Trade protections gave the domestic industry some relief in the second half of the ’70s, but in 1981 Ronald Reagan sealed its fate by removing import limits on footwear.
In 1984, David Purcell, a reporter for The Christian Science Monitor, came to Freeport to survey the damage. He noted that the U.S. had lost 94 shoe manufacturers within the past year, 32 of them in Maine. The introduction to his article is worth quoting at length:
“Huge machines bite into leather hides like giant cookie cutters. Workers fashion the pieces into a supple jigsaw puzzle, sewing and gluing where needed. And the pieces are passed on to the next station for more work. The activity seems unrelenting. Until the evening whistle blows, hundreds of busy hands turn out shoe after shoe. At day’s end, 6,000 new pairs of shoes are boxed, ready to go out the door.
“In the stitching room at Eastland Shoe Corporation it is not apparent that the Maine shoe industry is in trouble. Yet it is not just the evening whistle that idles workers in this state. The influx of imported shoes has caused dozens of shoe factories to close, throwing thousands out of work.”
Shoe-factory owners and politicians from Maine and across the nation had been pleading with the International Trade Commission (ITC) to restore federal trade protections. The ITC eventually agreed that the industry needed help, but in 1985 Reagan rejected the commissioners’ recommendations, warning that restoring limits or tariffs could spark a “trade war.” Americans “must live according to our principles,” the Gipper declared, by making sure “the world trading system remains open, free, and, above all, fair.”
I’d have liked to see Ronnie try to explain fairness to the Vietnam vets hanging out in Midtown. Having been told they had to kill Commies to protect the American way of life, they came back from the war and watched helplessly as a flood of cheap shoes made in “Red” China decimated their hometown.
Eastland Shoe employed over 800 Mainers at its peak. In July of 2001, the company closed its last factory in Maine, the one in Freeport, and laid off 150 people. The jobless knew exactly who to blame.
“China bites another one,” worker David Cameron told the Portland Press Herald at the time. “The company has been great about it. It’s no fault of theirs,” Cameron said. “It’s the government’s fault because they let China do this.”
By 2001, 96 percent of the American footwear market was imports, and three-quarters of those imports were made in Asia, according to an industry-group spokesperson quoted by the Herald. Eastland kept about 100 employees in Freeport handling sales and marketing and such, but in 2007, when Eastland founder Jonas B. Klein died at age 84, the Portland paper reported that “the majority of the company’s manufacturing now takes place in China.”
A vintage postcard image of Casco Castle & Amusement Park.
The Big Fire of 1981
Like most New England towns full of buildings made of wood that also burn wood for heat, Freeport has had its share of infernos. One famous blaze destroyed Casco Castle and Amusement Park, a tourist attraction in South Freeport built in 1903 to lure tourists traveling on an electric trolley-car line that once ran from Bangor to Boston. In September of 1914, the wooden castle — a hotel with room for 100 guests, surrounded by gardens and picnic areas — went up in flames. The adjacent stone tower is all that remained. The growing popularity of the automobile had hurt business at Casco Castle in the years before the fire, but arson was ruled out as a cause.
In a section on its website titled “Freeport as Phoenix,” the Historical Society documents two big fires that raged in the village within weeks of one another in 1946, destroying numerous residences and stores. But there’s no mention of “The Big Fire” of 1981 that many locals consider a pivotal turning point for the town.
“It was started by a lantern,” a native told me. “A lantern got knocked over.” A lantern? In 1981? I thought, incredulous. Who was the suspect, Mrs. O’Leary’s cow?
Actually, everyone knows who set the blaze: a local named Severen “Pete” Denyer who used to pal around with Jack and the Midtown crew. Jack has a print-out of a photo of Denyer tacked to the wall above his kitchen table. He’s a good-looking dude in the picture, long-haired and bearded, shirtless and grinning, a mischievous glint in his eyes. (Denyer was in his late 20s when the fire happened; he died in Searsport in 2008.)
According to Jack, Denyer and some friends were inside Leighton’s Five and Dime, a store across from L.L. Bean on Main Street, the night of Tuesday, Sept. 22, 1981, either partying or “just looking around, snooping around to see what they could find.” I’m told it was fairly common back then for young locals to break into stores and steal beer, cigarettes or register cash.
“Did Pete make shoes?” I asked.
“No,” Jack chuckled. “Pete was a ladies man, not a shoe man.” (Multiple sources told me Denyer once dated the heiress Linda Bean, but as Jack pointed out, “there’s more than one Linda Bean” around town.)
“I was working the night shift at Eastland and smelled smoke,” Jack recalled of that night, “so I went outside to make sure that the leather-dust pile hadn’t caught on fire.”
Denyer pleaded guilty to stealing clothes from Leighton’s and admitted setting the fire. He also copped to pilfering tires and batteries from an Exxon station in town 10 days before the blaze, and was facing other charges that were dropped as part of a plea bargain. The Cumberland County Superior Court judge who sentenced Denyer to 10 years in the state slammer in March of ’82 had no expectation that prison would reform this young man. The judge told him “he would probably be an ‘expert in the world of crime’ when he gets out,” the Portland Press Herald reported.
In addition to a landmark local business, all the small apartments on the two upper floors went up in smoke. No one was seriously injured, but 50 people were reportedly left homeless. Naturally, Vaughndella was in charge of Red Cross relief back then. She showed up to hand out emergency housing vouchers to the displaced residents.
“There aren’t any more apartments up in that area now, just stores,” Vaughndella pointed out. “It wiped out most of Midtown, and all of those apartments that was up there. Those people had to find another place to go; most of them went to Lisbon Falls.”
The burned-out property was rebuilt and eventually sold to a Boston developer who removed the apartments and leased the building to Dansk, the kitchenware company then based in New York. Five-and-dime proprietor Edgar Leighton reopened his business nearby and became president of the Freeport Merchants Association. ”People keep telling me what a favor the kid who lit that match did for Freeport,” Leighton told the New York Times in 1984. ”He didn’t,” Leighton added. ”But what he did do is hasten what was already beginning to happen.”
The transformation of downtown Freeport from a livable village into a shopping mall accelerated after the Big Fire of ’81, and it hasn’t been stopped or even slowed to this day.
In 1993, the Los Angeles Times sent a reporter to check out the new Freeport. “What makes all this interesting is that rather than being cloistered in some forlorn mall out by the interstate … Freeport’s 125 factory outlets have taken over Main Street,” David Lamb reported. “The Victorian homes, the hardware stores and banks and grocery stores, the apartment buildings that used to house workers from the factories, even the old jail — today each bears the name of some well-known national retailer. And business is booming.…
“But the town has paid a price for prosperity,” Lamb continued. “On a busy weekend, traffic clogs Route 1 through Freeport. Residential property taxes have tripled. Low-priced and moderate-priced housing has all but disappeared. And because the town’s tax base has soared, the state, which gets all the sales taxes generated on Main Street, has cut back on the funds it gives Freeport for school aid.”
Lamb’s last point — that state money for education decreases when a town’s property values increase — has been bad for the remaining residents and small-business owners, but great for big companies like L.L. Bean and DeLorme Mapping, thanks to a nifty trick called tax-increment financing (TIF). By giving developers and companies a TIF tax break when they build upon or expand their property, municipalities can keep the increased property value off their books, thus avoiding the loss of state funding that would otherwise result.
In 1995, Freeport’s arch-rival on the baseball diamond, the neighboring town of Yarmouth, lured DeLorme out of Freeport and onto a site just over the town line using a $3.9 million TIF tax break as bait. Writing in Maine Times in 1996, Evan Halper reported that Freeport was “jolted” by the move, and some town councilors “feared L.L. Bean could make a similar move if the town did not act fast.” At the time, L.L. Bean was planning a big expansion of its campus, but according to political wheeler-dealer George Campbell (a former Portland City Councilor and Mayor from since-gentrified Munjoy Hill), the company was prepared to ditch Freeport and move the whole operation elsewhere if it didn’t get a huge tax break for its new buildings.
In the end, Halper wrote, L.L. Bean got a $3.4 million TIF tax break, “plus another $2.4 million in public money to pay for infrastructure improvements.” Freeport saved about a quarter-million-dollars’ worth of annual state education funding it would have lost, and the town used $5 million of the TIF-protected property-tax cash to finance the construction of a new library.
“Freeport has found that every damn dollar they get in new [property] taxes, they lose in state subsidies,” Campbell told Maine Times. He was mostly right about that. Freeport’s city manager back then, Dale Olmstead, told Halper the town’s property-tax haul had increased by $3.2 million thanks to the retail bonanza, but Freeport lost $2.9 million in state aid as a result. The annual bill towns have to pay for county government services goes up when their tax base increases, and their share of state sales-tax revenue goes down.
So Freeport’s retail renaissance hasn’t lowered the locals’ property taxes at all. Just the opposite — that burden has steadily increased, forcing many older homeowners and families into foreclosure. And now the commercial development boom that filled the town’s coffers in previous decades is going bust.
Anybody got a match? (Just kidding!)
I asked Vaughndella what she considered her biggest accomplishment as a volunteer Jedi. “Being one of the five people who founded Freeport Community Services,” she said. “It started in the garage up over East Street. And we even worked Saturday mornings answering telephones and giving out clothes. That, I feel, is more important than anything I’ve done.”
FCS was formed in the early 1970s and grew in tandem with the growing desperation of the townsfolk. The organization moved to Depot Street in the early ’90s, and at the dawn of this century it set its sights on a much larger property: the three-story building on Route 1 formerly occupied by DeLorme Mapping. In the summer of 2000, a coalition of nonprofits led by FCS (and co-chaired, of course, by Vaughndella) bought the DeLorme building and a smaller, single-story structure in front of it for $600,000 (founder David DeLorme cut the listed price in half to facilitate the deal).
The plan was to make this the hub for Freeport’s social-service agencies and provide space for local arts groups and public meetings. Proponents also spoke of a larger mission: reviving a sense of community by reclaiming part of downtown for residents, most of whom seldom ventured into the village to conduct the business of daily life.
In the fall of 2001, Freeporters voted to spend $750,000 to renovate the DeLorme property for community use. By then the plan had expanded to include a new town hall and school administrative offices. Then things got really crazy.
The following year, the coalition shifted the project site to a much larger property in the heart of the village: the former Eastland Shoe factory. That massive building and its five-acre lot on Park Street would be a new “village center” developed expressly, if not exclusively, for locals. In addition to providing space for social services, the arts and town government, it was proposed that zoning for the site could be written to encourage businesses that cater to the needs of residents (like dry cleaners and grocery stores) to rent space there.
There was hope that Freeport’s retail boom could finally be harnessed to benefit its people. Accordingly, the proposal included a plan to lease Freeport Town Hall, which occupies a historic former schoolhouse on Main Street, to a big-name retailer, and use that rent money to help pay for new town offices at the recently shuttered shoe factory.
That dream was short-lived. About a month after the “village center” project was formally proposed, town officials nixed it. The old factory was in bad shape, and the cost estimates to redevelop it came in higher than expected. Proponents initially thought they could raise enough money to close the funding gap by selling a parking lot at the site to Bow Street Market, which was looking to expand nearby. But then they realized one of the lots had to be kept for people using the center, and L.L. Bean had a long-term lease on the rest of the parking that reportedly “could not be broken.” (By the way, this site is two blocks away from L.L. Bean’s flagship store, and on the other side of Main Street.)
In hindsight, given the current “retail apocalypse,” it wasn’t a bright idea to rely on rent from a retailer to fund new town offices. In 2000, Freeport voters had rejected a similar proposal to privatize their town hall; many said they didn’t want to lose yet another local landmark in the village. Still, the way the “village center” dream died is tragic.
When the town’s bean-counters ran the numbers, they found that local taxpayers would have to subsidize the center to the tune of either $39,000 annually (if only part of the factory had to be demolished) or $163,000 (if it turned out to be a tear-down). Even the lower estimate was considered out of the question in light of the town’s bare-bones, austerity budget. But even the higher figure is less than the additional property-tax money Freeport would have reaped, thanks to the then-recent L.L. Bean expansion, if the state’s school-funding formula didn’t punish places like Freeport whenever a business within its borders decides to grow.
Likewise, the formula the state uses to give cities and towns a piece of the sales-tax action accounts for the relative size of their property-tax base, but not the size of their contribution to the sales-tax kitty itself. A huge chunk of that change comes from businesses in Freeport. On a busy weekend, I’ll bet the registers here collectively ring up enough sales every hour to generate $163,000 worth of sales tax. That’s only possible because town officials sacrificed their village for mammon. Seems only fair that Augusta should throw Freeport an extra bone so the townspeople can rebuild a small piece of the community they’ve lost.
Oh, and one other thing: Having just gotten a fat tax break from the town, L.L. Bean couldn’t part with any parking to make the village center project viable? Their lease “could not be broken”? Why? Was it written on kryptonite?
So here’s my first idea to save Freeport from ruin: come up with a new plan for a “village center” dedicated to meeting the needs of residents, including those most in need. And don’t forget the teenagers! If there’s a lesson to be learned from the Big Fire of ’81, it’s that young punks with nothing constructive to do will do something destructive instead.
Freeport’s teen center never had a permanent home; it got bounced between several locations before landing at the Freeport Community Center, on Depot Street, in 2006. Then known as The PORT, it fizzled out two years ago when the volunteer who’d been running it moved on and no one stepped up to keep it going.
There’s a huge meeting room at the community center that’s almost always empty. When I met Vaughndella there, I suggested they host a weekly jam for local musicians, like the one at Portland’s community-access TV station. Broadcast it on FCTV 3. “We do have music here,” Vaughndella told me, then rattled off a list of acts that sounded like the lineup for an episode of The Lawrence Welk Show.
“No,” I said, “I was thinking of something where anyone can just show up and play.”
“They can,” she insisted.
I got closer and whispered, “But can they sing anything with naughty words in the song?”
“Goodness, no!” she gasped, then smiled. Well, that rules out about three-quarters of my catalogue.
Which brings up another idea: more community events for older folks, too. Like the Freeport Farmers Market.
The town farmers’ market used to take place on the L.L. Bean campus, but I was told that customers had a hard time finding it amid the complex of buildings and parking lots. It also used to be held on an empty piece of land on Main Street, next to Town Hall. Apparently a farmer complained that this site was too hard to access by truck, so the market was moved again, this time to the Harraseeket Grange, on Elm Street (turn off Main at the Union Jack), where it takes place indoors the last Saturday of the month from June through October.
Freeport’s Stonehenge. photo/Chris Busby
I met Sebastian Meade, a local who coordinates events at the grange, on the porch of the Freeport Feed Store in the village. Sebastian, who also runs a “micro manufacturing business” in town called Buttons, Pinz & Thingz, told me the stone sculpture on that vacant parcel next to Town Hall was made by David Moser, son of famed furniture-maker Thomas Moser, who has a showroom at the other end of Main Street. It was apparently supposed to be there temporarily, until Thos. Moser Cabinetmakers relocated to that spot. The relocation never happened, but the three rough-hewn slabs of granite remain, collared together by a rusty metal brace that I assume is keeping them upright. Sebastian calls it “Freeport’s Stonehenge.” I love that.
This empty lot would be a great place for public events. It’s semi-paved and still has power — a spotlight was installed to illuminate Freeport’s Stonehenge at night. Freeport should get on the bandwagon and join the other towns that have copied Portland’s First Friday Art Walk. Hell, anything fun happening in the village after sundown would be welcome.
I asked Scott Baker, a 26-year-old who lives here, what he does in Freeport for kicks. “Around here?” he asked. “Pretty much Gritty’s, the movie theater if you wanna see something, Petrillo’s if you want some food. But still, not a whole lot.”
“There’s nothing to do here anymore,” Jack told me. “I used to spend at least an hour down at Vinnie’s every day, playing pool. They had pool, darts, and pinball machines, live music. Now there’s just nothing. Might as well hang out at the CVS.” Sebastian said that when he’s walking his dogs at night, it’s not unusual to spot lodgers from the Hilton Garden Inn wandering around confused, looking for something, anything to do in the village.
A new nightclub, called Cadenza, recently opened on Depot Street, primarily booking jazz and blues acts. Also, in April, the town gave $133,000 in TIF (!) tax money to the Arts & Cultural Alliance of Freeport (ACAF). That’s about half the scratch the nonprofit needs to turn the First Parish Congregational Church, on Main Street, into a performing arts venue with gallery and meeting spaces. The group is reaching out to community members and corporations to raise the rest of the money, according to its website. These are both steps in the right direction.
Last year, the ACAF released the Freeport Cultural Plan. “With the shift to increased use of online shopping platforms, retail industries are developing experienced-based opportunities to remain resilient,” the plan’s introduction states. “World-wide, artistic, cultural, and historic assets are recognized as essential elements in that experience, providing a high quality of life, attracting tourism, lengthening visitor stays, and spurring new investment.”
I heard a similar pitch from Keith McBride, executive director of the Freeport Economic Development Corporation. “Freeport is fortunate,” he told me via e-mail. “Many towns want to transform their downtown into a destination, but we already are a destination and we have been for many years.” McBride cited “outdoor recreation, arts & culture and special events/festivals” as ways the town is diversifying its attractions to lure more visitors, and he put special emphasis on Freeport’s growing craft-beer scene. Maine Beer Company recently expanded its tasting room, Stars & Stripes Brewing opened last fall, and the Yarmouth brewery Brickyard Hollow now has another taproom in Freeport.
As someone who was homeless for years, I’m sorry to report that if you’re pinning your hopes on high-test beer, you’re bound to be disappointed. And there’s a key piece missing from this economic strategy: locals. How about a plan to attract more residents? It’d be an easy sell.
You know what the real-estate hucksters always say: location, location, location. Well, Freeport’s definitely got that. It’s a short ride by bus, car or train to Portland and Brunswick, and Lewiston/Auburn is only a few more minutes away. We’ve got forests galore, beautiful marshes and farms, and two public waterfront parks (Wolfes Neck Woods State Park and Winslow Park). Wonders to the west include Bradbury Mountain and the Desert of Maine! (I know, one’s not really a mountain and the other ain’t a desert, but it’s gorgeous out that way, too.)
If Freeport had more locals it would have more locally owned businesses, the kind that cater to neighbors by cutting hair, cooking breakfast, selling shovels, etc. Corporate retail is a fickle industry with no loyalty to any locale — remember, even L.L. Bean was ready to bail if it didn’t get a huge handout from the town’s taxpayers. But you can always count on hair, hunger and snow to drive consumer demand, and much more of the money spent at homegrown businesses stays and circulates in the community, rather than being stashed in some tax haven down in an actual Banana Republic.
Freeport officials don’t seem over-eager to have more housing in town. The comprehensive plan they released in 2011 to guide their community’s future contains this nugget: “Consider creating housing for low and moderate income families (family income up to $71,000).” Consider. That’s an extremely polite way to address a lack of affordable housing that most everyone else agrees has become a crisis. And it brings me back to the question that kicked off this story: Where did all the locals go?
That Forecaster article from 2013 came in handy again. “Huge numbers left to Lisbon Falls and Lewiston” when the retail boom began, Jim Hatch, then the executive director of the Freeport Housing Trust, told the paper. According to Census data cited in the article, of the over 5,300 people who then worked in Freeport, only 720 (about 13 percent) lived in town. Most workers traveled between 10 and 24 miles to their job, and over 1,600 commuted more than 25 miles, including more than 500 workers who lived more than 50 miles away. I know I’m crazy, but that’s madness!
“You’ve got all these professional people, like attorneys, driving down from Freeport to work in Portland, and you’ve got the lower-income people driving up the pike to work at Bean’s in Freeport,” Hatch told Graff. “And they’re crossing each other on the way to work everyday.”
The blunt reality is that most workers in Freeport can’t afford to live in the same town they toil in. According to McBride, singe-family homes in town start at around $400,000 these days. Apartment are still scarce, and there’s literally nothing affordable to rent. (Hang on, better check Zillow again for apartments in Freeport. … Yup, four listings, none of which are affordable for someone making $15 an hour.)
Of course, Portland’s not affordable either these days. The retail workers I spoke with all lived in the countryside west of the interstates, in towns like Pownal and Durham. “The other side of 295 is sort of affordable,” a clerk at the smoke shop told me. South Freeport’s still got some swanky homes, but as you drive north or west you see much more modest homesteads: trailers without parks, old cottages and seasonal cabins insulated for winter survival.
At the margins are folks like my friend Megan, a.k.a. Raven, who first lived in this area many years ago. I met her on the streets of P-town after that, and during my first winter in Freeport she’d been camping with her fiancé, her kid and her dogs at the foot of Bradbury Mountain. Raven’s in Nebraska now, working as a trucker, so I shot her an e-mail and asked if she’d been squatting back then or paying for a campsite.
“We paid,” she replied. “Used our old address to get resident prices.”
“Was there anyone else camping there in January? Were there park rangers?”
“Yes to both,” she wrote. “A single male was in a tent way in the back. One older lady in a station wagon. One H addict couple in a beat up camper … and us.”
Cops have a name for people like Raven’s family: transients. Sounds like a slur, don’t it, like these people have failed somehow. But what about the failure of corporate retailers like L.L. Bean to pay a living wage, and the failure of government at every level to create affordable housing?
Private developers have had decades to meet the need for shelter in Freeport, but they’ve barely made a dent in the demand, even with generous tax incentives to build affordable units. That leaves our public institutions to fix the problem.
Freeport’s government is so broke that it seriously considered turning its historic town hall into another Abercrombie & Fitch or whatever, and borrowing money through bonds or raising property taxes even higher to finance new housing are just ways to dig a deeper hole.
There’s our state government, but they’re also crying poor, even with those “free-spendin’ Democrats” in control. Too bad the Donkeys didn’t have the guts to repeal LePage’s tax cuts for the rich, those living or dead (dig their cop-out on lowering the threshold for the estate tax to kick in). That would have generated enough cash to house a lot of low-income folks. And Freeport still isn’t getting its fair share of state school funding and sales taxes, even under the current laws that dictate how that money’s doled out.
That leaves the feds to fix this mess. Luckily, there’s a stable real-estate genius in the White House, Donald J. Trump, who knows exactly how to leverage public money to build housing for the working class. As The American Prospect noted in a 2017 piece, Trump “owes his wealth to government-subsidized housing programs.” His father Fred “made his fortune by building middle-class housing financed by the Federal Housing Authority,” the magazine reported. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is a Section 8 landlord who’s also leveraged public housing money to amass his private fortune. And realizing we need a radically different and much smarter federal housing policy, Trump nominated — and the Senate confirmed (Collins “yea,” King “yea”) — brain surgeon Ben Carson to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
OK, no more joking around. Here’s the bottom line, and my last bright idea for Freeport.
HUD’s budget was over $83 billion in 1976. Our old pal Reagan slashed that by more than half in the early ’80s, and it hasn’t risen much since. In fact, considering the rate of inflation since ’76, federal funding for affordable housing has been gutted.
These days, even the most “progressive” politicians around here prattle on about complicated junk like “inclusionary zoning” and more tax breaks for private developers. Why don’t we simply demand the feds fund HUD at the same level they did when Saturday Night Fever hit the big screen? That’d be well over $240 billion in today’s dollars, but I’m not unreasonable — we can round down to an even $200 billion for starters.
In 2014, a HUD official estimated it would cost about $20 billion to effectively end homelessness in the U.S.A. That’d leave about $180 billion to build quality housing for working-class Americans priced out of the market or struggling to make rent or mortgage payments. Again, I’m not asking for the moon, just to return to the level of government investment in housing that we made a couple generations ago, before all the factories turned into factory outlets.
I picture several public housing complexes either in or within walking distance of Freeport’s village, new developments where the rent costs less than 30 percent of the occupant’s income (the official threshold for “affordability”). The handful of “low income” housing complexes already in town could be expanded and upgraded to bring in more locals, too. Another couple thousand new Freeporters should suffice to get the ball rolling and make this place feel like a real hometown again.
How do we make this utopia a reality, Rage? That’s simple, too: vote. We’ll have a chance next year to pick a new president and a new U.S. senator from Maine. An early front-runner for Collins’ job is Sara Gideon, a former Freeport town councilor who represents us in the state Legislature and has been serving as Speaker of the House. So far, Gideon seems more concerned about the rapacity of Brett Kavanaugh and her campaign’s account balance than the rapacity of corporate capitalism or the fact so many of her constituents have nothing in the bank. Show her this story and maybe she’ll agree that the best way to survive the “retail apocalypse” is to invest in local people, rather than count on more tourists and retail chains.
The people of Freeport U.S.A. definitely love their democracy (and I mean everyone, not just those famous Flag Ladies). The one time I saw my fellow townspeople gathered en masse was at Freeport High School on election night last fall. It was inspiring! Here, at last, was the beating heart of native Freeport, that small-town sense of community infused with the energy of a Friday night in the Old Port. If a paranoid, trauma-spangled streetnik like your humble narrator can feel at home here, so will you.