Van Buren’s revitalization momentum attracts state and national money

8 months ago

VAN BUREN, Maine — With word spreading about Van Buren’s revitalization efforts, more statewide and national organizations are stepping up to give the Aroostook County border town a boost.

A Bangor Daily News story last month about the town’s revitalization efforts generated at least four phone calls from groups including Maine Development Foundation, which wants to revive Van Buren’s status in the state’s Main Street program, Town Manager Luke Dyer said.

The Main Street program is part of the Main Street America program, which highlights towns and cities across the country as tourism destinations.

Van Buren has been dying over the last two decades, but recent efforts to rescue the town of approximately 2,000 are showing some success. Dyer said last month that it took 20 years for the town to get in a state of decline, and it would take a while to bring it back. Help from outside groups will make it happen faster.

Dyer said he had been in talks with Maine Development Foundation program director Anne Ball about Van Buren about becoming a Main Street community in a couple of years, but after hearing about the town’s current momentum the organization now wants to make this happen sooner. 

Dyer told the town council Wednesday that Van Buren was one of the foundation’s first Main Street towns, but its involvement waned over the years. The foundation reached out after Ball and her colleagues read in the newspaper article about the town’s revitalization.

“She reached out to me and said ‘We can’t wait. It’s time for Van Buren to become a downtown Maine affiliate, now.’ And I agree,” Dyer said.

Van Buren was recently awarded a Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design grant, which is supported by the National Endowment for the Arts. No money is attached to the grant. It instead gives small towns across the country access to national experts who help them make improvements that are focused on arts and culture as well as economic development.

They are one of only 17 other communities in the United States to get the grant this year. 

Dyer also said he is applying for a Community Heart & Soul grant, a Vermont-based group that encourages community members to become directly involved in a town’s revitalization. Volunteers gather stories from residents that help the town leaders identify what’s most important to the majority of people who live there. They will then use this information to help revitalize the town.

“We can have an opinion,” Dyer said. “We may want a statue of a bronze elephant where the dehydrated moose is, but the community may not want that all. So the purpose of Community Heart & Soul is to bring people together and talk about our history, talk about how we want our past, our culture, our current community to impact our progress of revitalization going forward.”

The grant would award the town $10,000 with a match of $10,000 that the town pays back over a two-year period. Dyer said this money is already in Van Buren’s economic development fund.

Council Chairperson John Beaulieu said he thought the community storytelling aspect of the program would help drive local participation.

Dyer plans to attend the National Rural Housing Conference in Washington, D.C., in late October with other communities in the Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design program. The program will reimburse his travel expenses of approximately $1,500, he said.

Town officials are reviving the town’s former nickname of “Christmas Town,” given decades ago because of all of the town’s thriving economy and diverse shops. They recently held a “Christmas in July” event, which Dyer said went incredibly well. 

Councilor Peter Madore, who has also played a significant role in the town’s revitalization, said he would have no problem keeping the name.

“I think we’ve gotten our name back from the old days,” he said. “I have no issue with leaving the Christmas lights on all year long. That’s going to be our designation. You can have whatever you want in every other town, but we have found our niche.”