Outlet stores overrun once-folksy Freeport Home to L.L. Bean, Maine town no longer 'for people,' critics say


December 22, 1997|By BOSTON GLOBE

FREEPORT, Maine -- Burton Brewer still savors the tangible and detailed fabric of small-town life. The man at the record store knows Brewer and his tastes. He is received warmly at the coffee shop. Friends and neighbors greet him or stop to chat as he makes his way from shop to shop on Main Street.

The problem for Brewer is that all this community warmth takes place 10 miles from the town where he lived for 50 years. Freeport is his home, but downtown Brunswick is his village.

Freeport, he said, has been consumed by retail outlets and has lost its center -- literally and culturally. "There's no hub to the spokes," Brewer, 57, complained. "What they did was they tore the town down, and now it's not for the people anymore."

While other communities across the country have seen their downtowns die when malls and outlets grew on their fringes, Freeport is a town whose very heart -- houses, apartment buildings, even its library -- was devoured by retail America.

An inexorably expanding parking lot, leading from merchandising giant L. L. Bean through what used to be a neighborhood, has crept to the very edges of the elementary school. Other lots spread through other former neighborhoods.

A town of about 7,000 that once made its living through the shoe industry and shipbuilding depends on 4 million shoppers each year.

Townspeople do not come here to shop. If they want to meet with friends over coffee in their hometown -- as they do down at the Falcon -- they have to do it early, before the outlet stores open and the town clogs with shoppers.

Merchants complain when local youths gather in the heart of town, where their schools remain but where the youngsters have little to do.

"The merchants don't want the kids getting out of school and hanging out in town," said Katrina Van Dusen. "The library used to be right there, and that was the hangout place. Now even the library's gone," moved from the downtown center to its fringe, about a half-mile away from the stores, farther from the schools.

"It's one of the things that's bothered me most in all this," said Brewer. "They've run the kids out, but the town's given them nothing to do.

"Everything in the town center is geared to the shoppers, not to the local people," he added.

Shoshana Hoose, a documentary filmmaker who has just finished a movie, "Outlet Town," that looks at what has happened to Freeport, said people here often give directions using the names of outlet stores rather than street names.

"You take a right at Mikasa, or you go left at Ralph Lauren," she chuckled.

It is easy to see why this is possible. Main Street is lined with stores: L. L. Bean, Nine West, Jones New York, London Fog, Benetton, Dansk, Mikasa, Cole-Haan, Ralph Lauren.

Other stores spill down side streets: Patagonia, North Face, Calvin Klein.

The library has become the Vermont Teddy Bear store. Homes have been converted to stores. There is talk that the town hall might have to move out of the center of town.

Joseph Conforti, a professor of American and New England studies at the University of Southern Maine, said that what has happened in Freeport is the modern version of the culture of an old "company town" -- "not in the classic mill-factory-worker sense but a variation on that," he said, meaning an industry runs the town and many of its people are dependent on that industry.

The people need the business, but the business leaves no room for them to enjoy their everyday pursuits, townspeople say.

Some people blame L. L. Bean, established here 85 years ago, even as they acknowledge the money the company gives to local causes, nearly a million dollars in recent years for education, recreation and community services; the jobs it provides, 3,500 year-round, 8,000 at the holiday peak; and the taxes it pays, nearly 20 percent of the town's total.

But Bean, some say, has too many employees on local boards. Whatever it wants, it gets, the critics claim.

Others point to a fire in 1981 that burned down a variety store and an apartment building across from Bean. After that, outlet stores sprouted up and down the street, nurtured in the economic glow of Bean's worldwide fame.

Lower-income folks, who lived in the apartments and smaller neighborhoods off the main street, were forced out. The town's tonier sections were beyond their means.

"Everybody who couldn't afford to stay has left," said Hoose.

What was left was a theme park with shopping as the theme. And tourists don't really see the town for what it was, Hoose said. "For the tourists, it feels like they are in a New England village, which they are, architecturally," said Hoose.

Townspeople, however, stay away for the most part, she said.

"People have learned to live quite well just completely avoiding downtown," Hoose said. "They just don't feel like there's anything there for them anymore."

Pub Date: 12/22/97

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