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Creating a 'Look Book' for Main Street in the Shadows of Katahdin: CIRD Workshop in Millinocket, Maine

Resident examines traffic and landscape designs outside of local business (PC: Malorrie Ann Photography

Background and Workshop Challenge: Millinocket—a Native American name meaning “the land of a thousand islands” —is a small town of 4,200 in the center of Maine. The town began in the 1830s when Thomas Fowler settled on the west branch of the Penobscot River. By the late 1800s, the local economy was boosted by the arrival of the Bangor and Aroostook Railway and the Great Northern Paper Company, which built its headquarters in Millinocket due to the abundant forests and logging resources. Harnessing the power of the Penobscot River, the paper mill was able to operate 24 hours a day, exporting paper all over the world.

Today, Millinocket is most known for its proximity to Mount Katahdin, the final leg of the Appalachian Trail that runs from Georgia to Maine. The downtown corridor, like in many rural communities, has struggled since the departure of manufacturing after the paper mill closed its doors in 2008. The Town of Millinocket, in partnership with a number of local organizations including Our Katahdin, the Maine Downtown Center, Northern Forest Center, and others, was awarded a workshop with Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design to support economic revitalization along Penobscot Avenue.

CIRD worked with local stakeholders in Millinocket to design a visual rendering - or “LookBook” - of Millinocket’s downtown corridor that store owners, private individuals, nonprofits, and the town government can use. The town is located in a remote area and hopes to attract more visitors to their downtown center, which means improving the building facades, sidewalks, and public spaces to attract more pedestrians. The workshop led to the creation of conceptual design renderings of the downtown corridor based on community ideas, wayfinding research, walkability studies, and historical precedent.

 Malorrie Ann Photography
Workshop participants gathering along Penobscot Avenue, PC: Malorrie Ann Photography

Workshop Process: Originally scheduled for April of 2020, planning for the workshop was almost complete when everything shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The workshop was delayed and stakeholders gathered over the summer to assess the workshop’s status as more information was available; ultimately it was decided to offer a hybrid of in-person and virtual sessions. The abbreviated workshop took place on September 23 and 24 in Millinocket, but kicked off with virtual work in the preceding weeks. The CIRD team brought on board architects from the region, including James Reynolds of in + site architecture out of rural Perry, New York, and Mitchell Rasor, principal architect at MRLD, who is based relatively nearby in Portland, Maine. Their expertise enriched CIRD’s team with tested rural architecture knowledge and a landscape design background, collaborating to improve pedestrian experience with Penobscot Avenue’s environment.

Lizzie MacWillie, Associate Director of buildingcommunityWORKSHOP and CIRD design lead, conducted a site visit to Millinocket in February of 2020, ahead of the planned workshop date. Photos from this visit and meetings with stakeholders like members of the Millinocket Memorial Library laid important groundwork for the workshop itself. 

Two virtual workshop sessions were conducted ahead of travel to the town. Megan Laudenschlager of Strengthen ND assisted CIRD by conducting a goal-setting session with business owners along Penobscot. Her experience with a CIRD workshop in Tuttle, North Dakota and economic development expertise elicited informative responses from business stakeholders and led to a curated list of resources for further development. CIRD also held a goal setting meeting with members of the Town Council, Chamber of Commerce, heads of nonprofits, and local residents with design expertise in order to build buy-in from a broader range of residents. This meeting discussed priorities for downtown development, the history of work on economic revitalization, and informed the workshop team on what residents hoped to see. Throughout this process, CIRD worked with Facebook and the virtual collaboration tool Miro to engage local residents from a distance.

In Maine, the workshop kicked off with a lunch workshop first day. During this outdoor, socially distanced gathering by Heritage Park, resource team members encouraged residents to use Post-it notes to describe strengths of downtown and opportunities for improvement.

During the Design Session in the evening, participants were able to review the ideas introduced earlier that day, which had been further developed by the CIRD resource team. This included a review of preliminary traffic designs led by Mitchell Rasor and building facades led by James Reynolds.

The second day lunch workshop made the most of being downtown and maintaining social distance, by posting downtown design proposals and images on the window of a local business. The public was able to comment on these renderings and provide further input to the design team while remaining COVID-safe.

The workshop concluded with a presentation to the Town Council of Millinocket during their council meeting on Thursday evening.

 Malorrie Ann Photography
Rural resident engages with images of the downtown corridor PC: Malorrie Ann Photography

Outcomes: Visioning for the overall downtown area along Penobscot Ave. led to design concepts that future investment in the area may embody. This includes 1) general recommendations including signage, outdoor seating, and planters; 2) re-envisioned public space recommendations including traffic patterns and landscaping;  3) achievable façade enhancement recommendations based on community feedback.

Public Space Recommendations: the CIRD team developed concepts for bringing more greenery and trees into the landscape along Penobscot Ave. The town can do this through redesigning their traffic flow to accommodate temporary and, eventually, permanent green spaces that continue to allow for parking and snow plowing in the winter. Concepts also include examples of:

Developing dynamic pedestrian space at the corner of Penobscot and Central

Temporary forest along sidewalks to introduce landscaping

Outdoor seating and benches in keeping with the natural character of the region

Building Façade Recommendations: residents, guided by CIRD team, took a closer look at what they liked and did not like about the façades of many businesses along Penobscot Ave. These recommendations could be promoted by the town and then implemented step-by-step with local business owners, including those who attended CIRD workshops. CIRD created a short list of guidelines for materials, windows, signage, and vacant lots, plus examples of the following:

Decorative cornices

Façade-mounted and perpendicular signage

Restoring transoms

Restoring ground level and upper floor windows

Main Street Lighting

Altogether, the final Look Book for the Town of Millinocket represents a collaborative vision from town residents informed with design expertise that shows a clear path to their future.
 

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