Every month, I head out to a town in Maine and try to capture the essence of its people and the place. Since May, when I began these Explore! features for the Lewiston Sun-Journal, I’ve visited Wilton, New Gloucester, Turner, and a few weeks ago, it was Norway.
I continue to hold a fascination about the changes that are taking places in smaller communities across the state of Maine and elsewhere. If America is anything, it’s a country of small towns and communities. Maine is no different in that regard.
The economic shift that’s occurred over the past 40 years hasn’t been kind to small towns like Norway. Many communities in western Maine have been hit hard by globalization, and the loss of traditional resource-based jobs that have disappeared.
New Balance, America’s last athletic shoe manufacturer, has a manufacturing facility in Norway (opened in 1997). They also have a factory store in neighboring Oxford. These kinds of jobs have all but disappeared from western Maine, where manufacturing once was a key industry.
While I live in central Maine, 30 miles from Norway, I’ve visited the town numerous times over the past 10 years. I even held a book signing in town when my first book, When Towns Had Teams, about small town baseball in Maine, was released back in 2005. At that time, Main Street was struggling. Many of the storefronts were vacant.
There have been a number of efforts to revive the downtown area and the Oxford Hills region. I’ve been around long enough to remember Enterprise Maine. I even participated in one of their development workshops that they held, which was probably in 2006 or 2007.
It was gratifying last December when my wife and I were passing through Norway on the way to a family Christmas gathering in Bryant Pond, to see some new businesses dotting Main Street. We stopped for about an hour, sipped some wine at a wine tasting at Fiber & Vine, and grabbed coffee and pastries at Café Nomad. It was obvious that filling some empty storefronts had really helped bring a new energy and vibe to the town’s quaint Main Street.
During my most recent visit, I heard from locals that Norway’s new look and vibrancy was a result of local citizens banding together to be the change that they wanted to see for their town. It wasn’t accomplished from the outside, with traditional economic development methods—many of them have been tried and found wanting in Norway and places like it. The former head of Enterprise Maine is now off in Montana, I believe. I’m sure he was a good guy and obviously bright. But he didn’t really understand the local culture, which is always a deal-breaker, in my opinion.
When places like Norway decide to figure out what’s special about their place, and rally around some of those unique assets, good things can happen. A visit to Norway will bear this out.
Other struggling places in Maine could do the same thing—but many won’t—for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s a lack of vision. Other times, it’s simply that not enough people have the hope required that it takes to dream and see a new way forward.
Hi! My name is Jim Baumer. If you are reading my blog for the first time, I’m a Maine-based writer, indie publisher, and freelancer. I write for a variety of publications, including monthly features like my Explore! pieces in the Sun-Journal. I also have a brand new book out, The Perfect Number: Essays & Stories Vol. 1. It’s about Maine, small towns, walks across America, and old-time writers like John Gould. It’s available from my small press, RiverVision Press. I’m also giving a reading/talk about life in small town Maine on Sept. 24, in my hometown of Lisbon Falls, at Lisbon Falls Community Library.