A modest proposal for downtown Bath
Around town - Dispatches from Middle Street
By Darreby Ambler, Times Record Contributor
BATH â€” In recent weeks the people of Bath have been struggling to imagine the future of our waterfront and of our city. The development proposals now on the boards are forcing us to ask important questions: What do we want Bath to look like in 20 years? What is of value that we need to protect? What new opportunities should we seize?
I recently received a wistful e-mail, describing the Bath of not so long ago, one that had eight car dealerships, five department stores and two movie theaters. It is an alluring vision, and I share the writer's longing for this bustling, commercial Bath of the 1950s. He concluded by lamenting the present downtown and its "bunch of antique and other minor shops."
I've written here before that my family's experience of downtown is quite different from that grim summary. Downtown, we buy our food, our medicine and much of our clothing. We meet friends. We have, among other things, our teeth, hair and eyes adjusted.
These aren't "fringe" activities, but the meat and potatoes of our everyday life, and I am grateful â€” daily â€” that I live in a town that works.
Yet, I know from e-mails like his, and from other conversations I've had, that many in Bath don't come downtown all that often â€” save, maybe, for trips to Renys.
As we envision our future together, we must make sure that our downtown doesn't evolve into a sort of yuppie Magic Kingdom, with "real life" happening at the malls. Ugh.
Our town must be a town for all of us, a place where, in the words of the national Main Street Web site, people "throng the streets on a Saturday night to meet friends, see a movie, and window-shop."
Now, any Maine waterfront town can get itself to throng with tourists, but to throng with US, the people who live and work and love here? That's the trick.
I say Bath needs a downtown movie theater, and we need it now.
A movie theater is perhaps the most magical of commercial enterprises. Yes, a bakery is delicious and a shoe store is convenient. But a movie theater is the stuff of our collective daydreams.
A movie theater brings us romance when we're lovelorn, and belly laughs when we're feeling bleak. It brings new ideas and faraway places to our doorstep. It is exciting. (Has someone coined a word for that delicious feeling of anticipation when the lights go down and the screen lights up?) It provides fodder for good, long, spirited chats. And it pulls us out of our living rooms, so we're chatting with each other, not just the cat (who has heard it all before, anyway).
Movie tickets aren't cheap, but they are a modest luxury, one most families spring for now and then. It is telling that the one time each year when almost every one of us can be spotted downtown is during the Heritage Days carnival on the waterfront. Families who won't come downtown to shop or to bank do come to have fun.
People will only feel connected to the downtown if they have to have something to do there. A movie theater is an invitation, and it is one that is open to all.
It is not a coincidence that the restoration of an old cinema has been central to many downtown "rescue" programs nationally. Movies are an economic engine. Downtown Bath may not need rescuing during the day, but it could sure use some sparkle at night.
Nothing makes a downtown come alive after dark like a thriving movie theater. Once people are downtown, they need a cup of coffee or an ice-cream over which to rehash the ending of "Titanic" or try to figure out just what the heck was going on in "Memento." Movie-goers support restaurants, coffee shops and even more night life.
The economics of running a small movie theater are notoriously tough, but there are plenty of local success stories: the Eveningstar in Brunswick, the Strand in Rockland (each of which competes with a local multiplex) and the Colonial in Belfast. Their enterprising owners found the right mix to serve their own communities.
We can too.
Let's get the word out: An attractive riverside city is waiting to have its screen lit up.