“WE’RE BEING DISCOVERED for all of the qualities we already know we have: The friendliness, the walkability, the architecture,” said Mari Eosco, chairwoman of the Bath City Council.

“WE’RE BEING DISCOVERED for all of the qualities we already know we have: The friendliness, the walkability, the architecture,” said Mari Eosco, chairwoman of the Bath City Council.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a two-part series on the evolution of downtown Bath.

BATH

The city of Bath is on the cusp of change, with opportunity for growth on the horizon. A driving force of that change, however, involves the increased cost of living in a different community, 35 miles to the south — Portland.

It’s no secret that as Portland has grown bigger, it’s also gotten more expensive. As more people descend on Maine’s largest city, others are pushed out into the neighboring communities. This effect has slowly been creeping up Maine’s coastline — from Falmouth to Brunswick, and now Bath.

“We’re being discovered for all of the qualities we already know we have: The friendliness, the walkability, the architecture,” said Mari Eosco, chairwoman of the Bath City Council and interim director of Main Street Bath. “Bath has this soul that you can’t create — it just has it.”

Bath has always been a bit of a commuter town, in no small part due to the presence of Bath Iron Works, with some of its 5,700 workers commuting to Bath, some from as far as an hour and a half or more away.

And while Bath has always dealt with some of the spillover effects of being near Portland, prices in Portland could push that to another level.

“I think it’s inevitable, you know, (with) the prices of things in Portland,” said Eosco. “Bath really has got a great infrastructure, we’ve got this amazing community, and I really see that we’re going to have an influx of people wanting to move here of all age ranges.”

Housing and parking

But is Bath ready for an influx of people? While more customers would be a boon to the downtown, it could be unsustainable if the city cannot offer enough year-round affordable housing.

“Bath’s appeal is really that it’s a thriving, year-round community. We draw tourists, but we’re really a year-round community,” said Bath Housing Executive Director Debora Keller. “With that, you need employees and employers that need to thrive … and that means that your employees need a place to live.”

She is already seeing spillover effects in Bath from Portland’s housing market.

“I think the pressure is already here, and it’s only going to get worse,” said Keller. “The demand for housing that is so stark in Portland is working its way up the coast.

“We are seeing a really phenomenal rent escalation — a scary rent escalation,” she added. “If you look at ads … you’re looking at $1,100 for two bedrooms and $1,300-plus for three bedrooms in Bath.”

Keller said that Bath Housing is currently working with the city to assess what tools are available to address an incoming housing crunch.

Some housing development has taken place already. Over the summer, the Szanton Company opened an affordable housing project at the former John E.L. Huse School. However, another housing development proposed at the former YMCA lot in downtown Bath by the company was rejected by the city council earlier this year.

“I think with the condominium project that’s taking place on the north end of Commercial Street, that’s utilizing a location that has sat dormant for years and is drawing some new residential experience,” said Marc Meyers, the city’s director of Community Development. “I think, eventually, the city council will look to revisit the former YMCA site and what possibilities there may be there for development.”

What ultimately killed the housing project at the former YMCA lot was a perceived lack of parking, another looming issue in downtown Bath.

“I don’t think that it is terribly critical, but I think that it is a serious problem in the summertime when a lot of people are around,” said John Morse of Sagadahock Real Estate Association. “We have some empty second floor spaces, and they’re very large, but we don’t have the all-day parking to be able to do that.”

He brought the issue up at the most recent city council meeting, noting that a lack of available parking during the day is detrimental to businesses in the downtown.

“In the long run, I think a solution to the parking problem needs to be discovered for the downtown,” he said.

Yet despite any challenges, optimism abounds in downtown Bath.

“People are positive about where Bath is and optimistic for the downtown’s future,” said Meyers. “Small businesses do come and go in our downtown, but Bath’s poised in a good position going forward.”

“We’ll just continue to do the same thing, continue to market hard and make sure people know we’re here,” said Mike Fear, owner of Now You’re Cooking, a longstanding kitchen supply store on Front Street.


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