Comp Plan Forum: Bridgton needs to start marketing itself

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

Bridgton has so very much to offer both its residents and those “from away,” but it does a pretty poor job promoting itself.

That was the general theme arising from a forum held Monday under the big screen at the Magic Lantern Theater’s Tannery Pub. The 18 people who attended the Comprehensive Plan Committee’s forum were of one mind  — what Bridgton needs to focus on above all is summed up with a single word: Marketing. Marketing. Marketing.

When the town website proudly proclaims, “100 things to do in Bridgton,” and the link, once clicked, says “Coming Soon,” the message is given that Bridgton has a laissez-faire attitude about promoting itself. CPC Vice Chairman Greg Watkins got a few laughs when he used that example, but he prompted several people to stress the need to market what Bridgton has to offer.

“Where is the big banner, to let everyone know what is going on?” asked CPC member Dick Danis. “Because we have very, very, very many things to do here. How do we exploit that?”

Julie Whelchel, former co-owner of the Noble House Inn with her husband Rick, said one of Bridgton’s best assets is the walkability of its downtown. There’s a view of a lake from Main Street — not many downtowns can say that, she said.

“I would say, continue to utilize the resources we have, but improve on them,” Whelchel said. She and Rick are doing just that, by renovating a historic building on Main Hill that once housed an antique shop. More could be done, for example, to improve the amenities available to the public at Highland Lake Beach, she said.

Watkins told those gathered that the committee needs their feedback as it finalizes the all-important goals and strategies chapter in the draft Comprehensive Plan. The updated plan, which must be approved by voters, will replace the 2004 plan.

North Bridgton resident Ed Somers, who is doing period restoration work at the historic Gallinari House on Main Street for the Rufus Porter Museum, said, “I’ve been here for 20 years, and there’s very little for the 25–45 age group, the working adult, to do. There’s a huge focus on the retired people and the tourists, and a huge focus on school kids.” In particular, more resources ought to be available in the evenings, when working adults can take advantage of them.

That prompted CPC member Chuck Renneker to quip that he has heard many times, “…that Bridgton rolls up at six o’clock.”

Another resident corrected him, saying it was more like 5 p.m. when Main Street takes on a deserted look.

Watkins said that the town’s recreation department has done a great job providing recreational opportunities, but that it once again comes back to the need to get the word out, and market what Bridgton has to offer.

Not everyone agreed that self-promotion was essential. Bob Mawhinney said that when he retired to Bridgton, he “got bored,” and sought out opportunities, volunteering for the fire department and working at Shawnee Peak.

“Use your imagination, don’t wait for somebody to do it for you,” Mawhinney said.

Renneker asked the audience whether they thought Bridgton needed larger recreational and community facilities. The old Town Hall on North High Street is used heavily by the recreation department, yet isn’t seen as an appropriate space for some activities, especially high-impact sports.

“When it’s gone, it’s gone,” said a Woods Pond resident who said she appreciated all of the efforts in Boston to hold on to its historic architectural heritage. “I read somewhere that Bridgton’s downtown was one of five intact downtowns left in Maine,” she said.

Selectman Ken Murphy agreed. “I feel strongly that you don’t give up” a town’s architectural history. Murphy and all four other selectmen were on hand for the forum. At their meeting the next evening, they encouraged CPC members to hold more forums like the one on Monday before finalizing the goals and strategies.

Murphy asked the audience how many of them would like to see a bowling alley in Bridgton. He pointed out that there used to be a bowling alley in Pondicherry Square, in the former Peg-a-Leg Pete’s building.

“This town used to have a lot of spirit in its heyday,” agreed Selectman Bob McHatton. “There was a lot of pride. We need to bring it back.”

“Maybe we should start constructing a dome,” joked CPC Chairman Bob Wiser. Bridgton was used as a basis for the fictional town of Chester’s Mill in Stephen King’s Under the Dome, which premiered this week as a 13-episode TV series on CBS.

Selectman Doug Taft asked how many people had seen the website created by the town of Bethel. He pointed to that website as an example of a town that knows how to promote itself.

CPC member Glen “Bear” Zaidman said the town ought to hire a marketing consultant, and “maybe not spend so much money on a planner.”

Frank Howell, owner of the Magic Lantern and Downeast Engineering, Inc., said one key to Bridgton’s future growth lies in bringing high-speed Internet to town. The so-call “Three-ring-binder” project to extend high-speed fiber-optic cable to Bridgton should be coming online in a few years, according to Community Development Committee Chairman Mike Tarantino.

“We did $11 million in gross sales last year, and we watch our products being made in Wolfeboro (Mass.),” Howell said. “Much of what we’re talking about tonight is to get people to come and stay.”

“It’s just a wonderful New England town,” said Danis.

At Tuesday’s Selectmen meeting, Wiser said Howell waived the $300 fee for the CPC’s use of the Pub for the forum.


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