Shevenell Park in downtown Biddeford was easy to walk past. The sign was tagged with graffiti, and broken bottles littered the ground.

But community organizers hope its redevelopment will bring people into the area to have lunch and mingle.

Volunteers and the Heart of Biddeford, a nonprofit organization focused on revitalizing the downtown, worked on June 9 to plant flowers, clear debris and install bistro-style tables and chairs. It was part of the United Way of York County’s Day of Caring.

A $4,200 grant from the Maine Development Foundation and another $2,100 in donations made the project possible, along with the help of about 10 volunteers and the city’s public works department.

The park used to have people sleeping in it and is known for drug activity, said Alan Ackerman, a volunteer and lifelong Biddeford resident.

Ackerman described the park as a “dumphole” that, he says, the local police do not patrol as much as they should.

“It might last a day or so,” Ackerman said of the improvements, until someone steals something or uproots the trees.

That’s been the attitude of many Biddeford residents, said Zeke Callanan, the Heart of Biddeford’s executive director, but it isn’t stopping him and his organization from pushing forward with new ideas for the downtown.

“Our vision is a lively downtown that is the economic center of Biddeford,” he said. “Our goal is to preserve the open space and reduce sprawl.”

Tammy Ackerman, Heart of Biddeford’s design committee chair and no relation to Alan, agrees.

“I’m a big believer in the strength of downtowns. Downtowns are the lifeblood of the community,” she said.

And to strengthen a downtown that is home to a shuttered mill and residents who, Callanan said, are “ready to give up,” a downtown plan is in the works.

Biddeford was one of four cities nationwide to receive a $100,000 “Heart & Soul” grant from the Vermont-based Orton Family Foundation to develop an implementable master plan based on community input.

Neighborhood meetings have been happening for more than a year and a half to gather ideas and stories from residents, Callanan said, and a community forum will be held on July 15 to present results.

Callanan points to the closure of the mill and bitterness spawning from that as the root of many negative feelings about the downtown.

“It’s never going to be like how Biddeford was in 1940,” he said.

The loss of school art programs and the high school band to budget cuts cause an increase in graffiti as teenagers look for a creative outlet, Callanan said.

“For a lot of kids, (art) is the brightest part of their day,” he said. “These kids need support, they need mentors.”

Back at the park, Michele Tanguay, the branch manager of Bangor Savings Bank next to the park, said she’s excited and supportive of the work the volunteers did.

“Looking forward to having a place we can actually sit down and eat (lunch),” Tanguay said.

It’s part of a progressive, positive movement downtown, Callanan said.

“Like most things that take a long time,” he said, “they’re worth the wait.”

 

Stephanie Hardiman can be contacted at 791-6301 or at: [email protected]