July 16, 2020

Ex-Bangor officials reflect on city issues

BANGOR — Some of the city councilors weren’t even born when George Carlisle served as mayor in 1948. But the panel sat in rapt attention Monday evening as Carlisle and 16 other former mayors shared memories of leading the elected representatives of the Queen City.

The council of a half-century ago — meeting at the old City Hall on Hammond Street — dealt with the burning of the City Farm, cut the ribbon on the W.T. Grant department store, and instituted the city’s first traffic lights, Carlisle recalled.

Before that, it was the white-clad hands of police Officer “Mittens” Burke that guided traffic at the intersection of Hammond, Central, Main and State streets.

Both Carlisle and James Totman, mayor 1951-1952, brought up the idea of Bangor and Brewer functioning as one town — perhaps not in the political sense, Totman said, but at least through some cost-saving ventures such as joint purchasing.

The issues confronting Bangor’s current council have not changed much over the years, several former mayors observed.

“You are talking about the same things we were talking about when I was [council] chairman,” said Nicholas Brountas, mayor in 1964.

Vitality in the downtown was dear to his heart then, and it still is.

“Urban renewal was a tough, difficult battle,” Brountas recalled of the effort that tore down buildings in the core of the city.

When he ran for re-election to the council, the issue had caused “so much bitterness, some wouldn’t even put my poster in their window.”

Urban renewal didn’t turn out the way it was supposed to, Brountas acknowledged, mainly because people didn’t support it the way they said they would.

“But I still believe it’s not too late to do something with the downtown,” he told the council. Efforts “should be concentrated in that particular area,” he said, adding his hopes that redevelopment of the waterfront have a positive effect on the downtown.

N. Laurence Willey Jr., who served as mayor twice in the 1980s, said before the meeting that the city had taken the right step in retaining a consultant to assist with development on the waterfront. The Annapolis firm of Hunter Interests Inc. will help the city search for a developer to spearhead the effort.

“I think it’s vitally important to make certain that the private sector is integrally involved. The private sector should be driving this,” he explained. “We have the opportunity to take our time and do it correctly. The waterfront is the key to the whole downtown revitalization.”

Willey has high hopes for the Queen City.

“This community can accomplish anything that it desires,” he told councilors. “Don’t be afraid to challenge yourselves and one another. Be innovative. Be a catalyst for change.”

Aviation has certainly changed in Bangor in the past half-century, the former officials noted.

What is now Bangor International Airport was then Dow Air Force Base, Carlisle observed. As a city, “we had to use Old Town for a while.”

It was during Merle Goff’s tenure as city manager, 1966-1976, that the city took the courageous step of converting Dow for military use. Goff and then-Mayor Norman Minsky took possession of the airport permit in the summer of 1968.

There was financial risk involved, but also a strong vision on the part of many, Goff recalled. “There was a lot of potential there.”

The airport has a healthy reserve fund of millions of dollars, but it also has seen domestic service decline in recent years.

“The airline industry was changing then, and it’s still changing,” Goff pointed out. “That’s the problem. There are a lot of big jets that can overfly Bangor,” not to mention the vagaries of the airlines as they decide which cities get service.

“Marketing is very important,” Goff said. “The question is, how do you do that?” Advertising isn’t going to do the job, he said. Rather, airport staff have to work on “personal relationships with people at the airlines. The marketing people have got to be on their own.”

A task force appointed by Gov. Angus King has recommended a four-year, $4 million effort to improve air service in Bangor, with some of the money to go for marketing. The task force hopes that the federal government will put in a $2 million grant, that the state will appropriate $1 million, and that the airport will kick in $1 million.

Goff said the recommendation was a good one.

The former mayors and city managers each offered good wishes for the city’s future, and confidence in the council’s ability to do the job. But the man who served as mayor three times during his 15 years on the council showed he hadn’t lost his ability to cheer on the home team.

Don Soucy cited many of Bangor’s achievements, and praised “the best police and fire departments in the whole state of Maine, the best school system, dedicated city employees.”

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