BATH — Shoppers visiting downtown Bath for the first time in awhile might be surprised at just how much has changed in the past few months.

Between new owners, store closings and openings, and moves at least 15 different businesses downtown have seen some kind of change.

While some, like River Bottom Video, New England Antiques, Solo Bistro, and Stable on Front have left empty storefronts, many business owners and Main Street Bath – an organization that represents Bath’s downtown – don’t seem worried about the economic future of the city.

“I don’t feel pessimistic at all. I see those empty storefronts as potential,” said Mari Eosco, interim director of Main Street Bath. “I have seen more activity in the last year or two with developers coming in and having a real interest in the city that I’ve never seen in the 15 years I’ve been here.”

The empty storefronts, in some ways, are being offset by development of other spaces that have also been vacant. A prime example of that is work at 141 Front Street, future home of Bath Brewing Company, a space formerly occupied by an antiques store and briefly used as a showroom for the RiverWalk condominium development.

Now, a three-person team is hard at work transforming the space into a two-floor restaurant, bar, and brewery. It’s been a heavily involved process, with a complete renovation of the interior of the building to transform the space.

“We’ve taken this old building basically all the way to the walls,” said Mike Therriault, one of the three men behind the plan.

The developer, Sean Ireland, said people have been excited to see the change, and the level of investment they’re making on Front Street.

“I think people are excited beyond just that there’s a cool new place opening,” he said. “I think they’re excited about the investment we’re making in the community.”

Ireland said they’re shooting to open by late January.

Another change downtown is right next to City Hall, with the old Bank of America building. After sitting empty for over a year, the building is now being turned into additional office space for Bath Savings Institution.

“We will be occupying the building – the bank is growing all the time – and we need space for our staff,” said Vice President of Marketing Barbara Gaul. “We are in the stage of renovating it for our use and expect to be in it sometime in the spring.”

Perhaps one of the most obvious changes is the moving of Island Treasure Toys from its current spot on the north end of Front Street to the southern end. The bright blue paint, a signature of the store, has replaced the storefront of the space that used to house Ornament at 70 Front St.

Anita Demetropoulous, co-owner of Island Treasure Toys, said moving to the new space will allow her to expand offerings in Bath.

“It’s a bigger store, and the location I think, is going to be better,” she said. “I think it’s going to be nice to be next to House of Logan, and there’s a children’s clothing store up that way, too.”

She hopes to expand her offerings into more gifts for adults, potentially providing some of the things that were lost with Ornament’s closure.

“I hope that helps fill a little bit of a void, helps people have more to choose from,” she said.

Given that the holiday season is a busy time of year for a toy store, she said the move isn’t going to happen until January at least.

Demetropoulos also serves on the board of Main Street Bath, and said as both a business owner and a board member the feelings surrounding downtown are overwhelmingly positive.

“It doesn’t feel doom and gloom at all, just the opposite,” she said. “More and more people are moving towards Brunswick and Bath and realizing what a nice area it is.”

In contrast to Island Treasure’s shuffle up the street, other businesses may look the same but are under new leadership. Starlight Cafe, Bath Natural Market, and Over the Moon (formerly City Drawers) have all come under new ownership.

Dawn Baise has been in charge since September at Starlight Cafe, and feels right at home serving up the popular breakfast spot’s favorites.

“I love cooking, I always have. It’s my passion,” she said.

Dawn and her daughters all work together at the restaurant, and have kept many things the same but with some added personal touches.

“We’ve put our own twist on stuff,” said Baise. “I think there’s a lot of potential here; we’ve got a lot of support from the community.”

On Centre Street, Bath Natural Market is also being led by a new owner. Jess Weyl took the space over at the beginning of November after moving back to New England. With 20 years of retail experience, and a previous stint running a store, he said the market gives him a great chance to get involved in business ownership once more.

“It’s a great opportunity,” said Weyl. He grew up in New Hampshire, and moved back to New England after living and working in Colorado for a number of years. Now, he’s planning to continue on Bath Natural Market’s business model.

With all the changes going on, the city and community organizations are getting ready to tackle envisioning Bath’s future. Main Street Bath is planning to have meetings in early spring as the organization kicks off its strategic planning process, taking a look at the future of the organization and its role in the downtown.

“It’s looking at where Main Street has been for the last 16 years, where it started, what our accomplishments have been,” said Eosco. “This process of strategic planning – originally just for the board – has been really expanded to look at the vision of downtown again, which hasn’t happened in a number of years.”

The planning process will be open to the public, and city staff will also be taking part to determine the city’s future.
“The city intends on using the information that’s collected in the downtown in the visioning process to put in the comprehensive plan while it’s being updated,” said Eosco, who is also the chair of city council.

“It’s exciting to be able to have that partnership.”

Back when Main Street Bath first started, the threat facing downtown was big box stores, and the demise of main streets across the country. Now, the city is gearing up to face the threat brought by internet juggernauts like Amazon.

“We have a bigger Goliath now with the internet; what we need to find is our niche to find spaces to draw people in,” said Eosco.

Bath, in particular, has found ways to offer something the internet isn’t able to: The human touch.

“I think society in general, we’re all in transition where you can shop from your couch and do everything from home, but there’s that human component that’s missing,” said Eosco.

While small business ownership is never easy, and there are still empty spots downtown, the overall attitude is positive downtown. “I’m seeing those storefronts as … how exciting to see what’s coming in next,” she said.