Aroostook town in decline for 2 decades is revitalizing itself

12 months ago

VAN BUREN, Maine — This border town of just under 2,000 people in northern Aroostook County that had been declining for the past two decades is revitalizing, and a recent national arts and cultures grant will help its leaders and residents inject new life into their community.

The Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design grant, which is supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, does not have a monetary value. Instead, it gives communities access to national experts who will help them make improvements focused on arts and culture while also spurring economic growth. 

Van Buren is one of only 17 communities in the United States to receive the grant, which also helps town officials apply for additional money to fund their projects after the planning phase.

The grant comes during a renaissance for Van Buren, which so far includes a farmers market for the first time this year, a new town office and previously empty storefronts filling with new businesses on Main Street. The town has been in a slow decline for the last couple of decades, town officials said. The police department closed in late 2020 and Town Manager Luke Dyer said it is still indefinitely closed as Van Buren and towns across the state struggle to hire police officers. But the national grant will inject new life into tired places in town.

People have already started calling about refacing buildings on Main Street, Dyer said. 

The town is now in the design and planning phase, but the Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design grant distinction alone will help the town’s odds tremendously when it comes to seeking grants for things such as facade improvements, he said. 

“If you want us to start looking at your building, then become involved with this project,” he said. “We’re not going to do all the work and then have people come with their hands out.”

At its height in the 1950s, Van Buren went by the name of “Christmas Town” because of its booming economy and the unique shops filling its downtown. But eventually, a myriad of factors, such as the closure of Loring Air Force Base and a dwindling population throughout the region, contributed to its decline. 

Devin Parent, who was born and raised in Van Buren and recently opened a new food truck business called “The Food Dudes” with his cousin Lance Caron, said it has been great to see the town’s positive changes.

“The new businesses, the farmers market, and the [Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design] grant are all pieces of a larger puzzle that’s coming together beautifully,” Parent said. “As someone who grew up here, it’s heartening to see the positive changes and renewed energy in town.”

Parent also works as the town’s IT director, code enforcement officer and assessor’s agent. 

Dyer said it will take a lot of time and work to restore the town to its former glory, but he’s up for the challenge.

“It took 20 years for this town to get run down,” he said. “It’s not going to fix itself in two. So we’re going to have to do a lot of work.”

Dyer said they hope to create a pocket park near the Main Street boat landing. In addition to serving as the port of entry for Canadian boaters, he said it is also the only FAA-certified seaplane landing site in the northern part of Maine.

The park will become a central area that accommodates five modes of transportation: cars and motorcycles, ATVs, snowmobiles, boats and seaplanes.

“Our boat landing is 1,002 feet from our Main Street,” he said. “So somebody in Grand Falls for example could get on a boat at the marina. They could ride up to our boat landing, and walk to our Main Street.”

The pocket park and boat landing project will also involve an art piece created by a world-renowned artist. Dyer said he did not want to reveal the artist’s identity or too many details about the piece, but that it would represent the Acadian culture and history of Van Buren.

Another aspect of the project will involve a collaboration between Van Buren and the neighboring New Brunswick town of St. Leonard, but Dyer did not want to reveal any details yet.

While the grant is focused on culture and arts, the town is also working with Maine Department of Transportation’s Village Partnership Initiative to recreate sidewalks and design features to help with refacing business buildings. 

“Our whole Main Street will be part of a walking path,” he said. “It will come down through the park and wind its way on the sidewalk down [to the boat landing].”

This year, Maine and Ohio are the only two states in the country in which two communities received Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design grants. Ellsworth has joined Van Buren in preliminary design meetings.

“It’s terrific,” Dyer said. “I spent my summers in Ellsworth visiting with my Dad, and it’s pretty slick to see what they’re working on, and to just kind of have a sister city to work together with.”

The town held its second-ever farmers market on Thursday, in which some businesses sold out in under the first hour. Van Buren will continue holding farmers markets on alternating Thursdays and Saturdays throughout the summer. (Chris Bouchard | St. John Valley Times)

Community members like Lisa Borm, who moved from Indianapolis, Indiana, with her husband two years ago, have been playing a role in the town’s revitalization. She runs “Barefoot and Braless Gardens” and is also helping the town coordinate a series of farmers markets this year.

She said that while things are looking up for the town, some residents seem unsure how to react to changes like the new farmers market.

Aimee Michaud, a Madawaska native and Frenchville resident who sold handmade jewelry via her business “Inspired Creations,” wasn’t familiar with the national grant, but said it is great to see Van Buren bouncing back.

“It’s nice that things are being done,” she said. “Van Buren’s been kinda dead for a while, and it’s really nice that things are picking up and people are motivated to work together and bring it up to pace.”

Dyer views this as a five-year project, with one year of preliminary planning work complete and four years remaining.

Even though the grant does not have a dollar value attached, he said it will be immensely helpful to the town, as hiring a consultant alone can cost around $100,000.

“And that’s not for the drawings or creation, that’s just to hire a consultant,’” he said. “So, ultimately I don’t know what the dollar value will be, but it will be priceless for the town of Van Buren.”

Parent said that while the town has had a challenging phase, he and other residents hope the grant can enhance the town’s infrastructure and overall aesthetic appeal while fostering a greater sense of community and creating more public spaces.

“It’s important to remember that decline isn’t the end of the story, but often a transition to a new chapter. That’s what we’re seeing now in Van Buren,” he said.