Business is booming in downtown Lisbon. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

In six years, a community-wide focus on revitalization has changed the face of this former mill town.

LISBON — It was called a “drive-through community.” One developer called it “a dump.” It was a former mill town unable to distance itself from the past.

It had its traditions — the Moxie Festival being its most notable — like all small towns, but mostly it was a town on the way to somewhere else.

And then something happened.

“Everything was just like a domino effect, happening at the same time,” said Tracey Steuber, economic and community development director for Lisbon. “The downtown area was all of a sudden just flourishing.”

“Next thing you know, we’re at a point within the past few months where downtown is at its capacity,” she said. “All the vacant buildings are no longer vacant.”

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Business development in this town of nearly 9,000 along Route 196 between Lewiston and Brunswick is booming, and it didn’t happen overnight. The seeds were planted more than six years ago.

In 2012, Positive Change Lisbon, a nonprofit organization committed to bringing businesses and townspeople together, set up a meeting to look at development and brainstorm ideas for the future.

“We invited three developers to the town. The Town Council, Planning Board and (Positive Change Lisbon) were also there,” said Ross Cunningham, co-founder and vice president of PCL and a member of the town’s School Committee. “We asked (the developers) why they won’t develop Lisbon and one of them said, ‘Because your town is a dump.’”

From there, the Planning Board and town officials began the process of setting up standards and putting in guidelines for the town. They hired a town planner.

A year later, in 2013, the town adopted the Route 196 Corridor Vision and Master Plan, which laid out the community’s vision for the future and improvement along Route 196.

“There was a fair amount of momentum and energy from the town when they were going through the process of the 196 corridor,” said Town Planner Amanda Bunker. “It felt like it was only a couple years after that Lisbon was starting to see new businesses coming to town.”

Less than a year later the town approved the construction of a new track and gym for the high school.

In 2016, the town applied for and received a $150,000 facade grant to help businesses upgrade their appearances, a $320,000 Community Development Block Grant to rehab sidewalks, signs and lighting as part of the town’s Streetscape enhancements, and a $200,000 Brownfields grant for environmental assessments needed for the redevelopment of three properties.

“We had three grants at the same time,” Steuber said. “That was just amazing.”

National chains including Dollar General, Domino’s, a Verizon store and Aroma Joe’s, as well as many local shops, began opening in Lisbon.

Traci and Frank Austin bought the former Kennebec Fruit Co. store — once Moxie headquarters — at the intersection of Route 196 and Main Street in February 2017. They opened Frank’s Restaurant and Pub last July, in honor of Mr. Moxie, Frank Anicetti.

“My husband and I are very community-focused. We do fundraisers, we try to help out as much as we can with donations,” said Traci, the chairwoman of the Lisbon School Committee. “We are always grateful to our community.”

In April, Flux restaurant opened next door and has become another popular stop in Lisbon.

“They are booming,” Steuber said. “People now have to call for reservations just to get in there.”

Maggie Oliver opened her boutique clothing store, Eastcraeft, in 2014 and is now doubling the size of her store.

“When I first opened it was definitely really challenging,” Oliver said. “There was not a lot of businesses on the street. It was kind of slow-moving. In the past two years it’s been a lot busier.”

Oliver moved back to Lisbon from Portland to be closer to family. Once back, she found that a storefront was less expensive than the kiosk she was renting in the Maine Mall to sell her clothes.

“I think young people are attracted to Lisbon because it’s an affordable place to live,” Oliver said. “And at first you could say that it’s an affordable place to live but not much to do, but now you can say that it’s an affordable place to live and there’s actually stuff going on.”

Continuing along Main Street is another new business, Sippy Cup Consignment.

Laura Ingerson was born and raised in Lisbon and opened her store in December 2017. “Lisbon is a small town but is a strong town,” Ingerson said. “It’s very close-knit and supportive.”

Right off Main Street is Gentlemen’s Quarters, specializing in hip male haircuts and men’s clothing and shoes. Mick McCauley opened his barbershop last July after years of cutting hair at shops around the state.

“This is a very strong community,” McCauley said. “If it weren’t for the people in the community I wouldn’t be here. Everybody knows everybody and people like to support local businesses.”

Eastcraeft clothing store owner Maggie Oliver, left, chats with customer Tammy York, who came into the downtown Lisbon store with her dog, Atty. Oliver opened the boutique clothing store in 2014 and is now doubling the size of it. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

Another unique and young business in Lisbon is Blue Ox Malthouse. Joel Alex began malting in 2014 and opened his facility in Lisbon in October 2015.

“We found space in Lisbon,” Alex said. “We’ve been really happy and the town has been excellent to work with. It has the right package of things that we need for the business.”

But business is only one aspect of the community going strong. The Parks and Recreation programs have increased in size and popularity throughout the years as children and adults alike have flocked to its offerings.

For children there are after-school programs, a variety of summer camps and four-season sports programs. For adults, there are fitness programs and more sports offerings, as well as extensive senior citizen programming.

“We didn’t force anything; we just allowed it to happen,” said Mark Stevens, the director of the Parks and Recreation Department. “And I think the reason why it happened so quickly is because we don’t compete with other communities and there’s an untapped sense of events and activities in our community.”

The department also organizes concerts and movies at MTM park, a yearly car show and a winter festival.

Citizens in the department’s senior programs have taken trips to New York, D.C., Pennsylvania and Alaska. They are planning a trip to Cuba in the fall and another to the Grand Canyon next spring.

“We are a benchmark for other communities when it comes to senior programming,” Stevens said. “I lived here all my life and I thought I knew Lisbon. But I knew nothing about Lisbon until we started the senior program. They taught me so much from working with them in the community center.”

Young and old alike benefit from the town’s outdoor recreational offerings.

Beaver Park offers more than 300 acres of trails, fields, picnic areas and places for swimming and ice-skating in the winter.

The town’s trail system is 4 miles, some spots overlooking the Androscoggin River, and crosses through the village and beyond.

“You can go from Lisbon to Lisbon Falls without crossing 196,” Steuber said. “Beaver Park is also an amazing place and it’s all owned by the town.”

Bunker, the town planner, said that when she arrived in Lisbon she was told it was “having a hard time shaking that mill town community (feel). And working in other mill towns, (I know) that can be an unspoken thing. But it’s part of the evolution. They understand what their community is and what their possibilities are.”

It is finding its niche as new businesses, housing developments and families settle into the small town.

“You have the same services that you’re going to get in big cities without the big city,” Steuber said. “When I first came here, one of the things people said is that we need something to get people to stop. We’re just a drive-through community, we’re a bedroom community.

“But we don’t have to be,” she said.

It’s safe to say people are now stopping and taking notice of what Lisbon has to offer.

“The greatest asset Lisbon has is our people,” Stevens said. “We are generational. We have people moving into town (who) embrace what we do. And we have the people that are generational, third- or fourth-generation people. That’s the connection of a small town. That’s what really makes it great.”


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