KJ | New businesses, plants breathing new life into Augusta’s downtown look

By Keith Edwards, Maine Today Media, July 23, 2012

AUGUSTA — Helena Gagliano hopes her family’s new Italian restaurant can help bring some of the cuisine and culture of Europe, and Hallowell, to downtown Augusta.

Larry Fleury waters a planter on Water Street on Thursday evening in downtown Augusta. The Augusta Downtown Alliance has installed over fifty planters and hanging baskets on the street.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

Gagliano’s Italian Bistro opened last week at the former site of Java Joe’s coffee shop on Water Street, joining a handful of other new businesses that have opened recently in the city’s historic waterfront downtown.

Helena and her brother and chef, Dominic, were both born in Italy, and Dominic traveled throughout Europe, working for 25 years in restaurants in Germany, Sweden, Switzerland and Spain. They hope to bring authentic Italian and other European cooking to Augusta, but also hope to join what they describe as the growing downtown revitalization.

“We believe this downtown, it has a lot of charm and potential. We don’t see why downtown Augusta can’t be more like downtown Hallowell, with a great culinary experience,” Helena Gagliano said recently while sitting at a new wooden table on the restaurant’s deck, which offers a view of the Kennebec River. “There’s a movement going on here. We believe the downtown should be hopping.”

The Gaglianos, as well as Helena’s husband, Jason McFarland, who is also involved in the business, said their restaurant will feature freshly made pasta and a mix of ingredients imported from Italy and bought fresh locally.

Other new businesses that have opened in downtown Augusta this summer include a new CrossFit gymnasium, an upscale bar and lounge, an Internet technology firm and a pawn shop.

There’s also some other new life downtown — plant life.

Earlier this summer, volunteers, organized through the Augusta Downtown Alliance, put 55 hanging plants and large planters throughout the area. It amounted to about $6,000 worth of plants.

Initially, it was just going to be about $2,000 worth of plants and planters, according to Larry Fleury, president of the Augusta Downtown Alliance and owner of several rental properties in the area. Volunteers raised about $2,000 through the alliance’s Water Street Gardens program.

But when downtown volunteers went to The Home Depot in Augusta to purchase plants and planters, they spoke with a worker there who told them about a grant program the chain store had, and who encouraged them to apply.

They did, Fleury said, and The Home Depot granted the project $4,100.

“We were so grateful to Home Depot. They did a lot more than we’d anticipated,” Fleury said. “The street needed that extra touch. It improves the whole street. Hopefully, the store owners and residents downtown will appreciate it and do more on their own.”

Charlamagne’s bar and lounge opened late last month, with owner Tina Charest describing it as an upscale sports bar and lounge, with regular live music and other events. It’s in the almost-150-year-old former Chernowsky’s clothing building, where building owner Richard Parkhurst also has created luxury loft-style apartments on the upper floors.

Owners of the new businesses hope to complement each other, not fight over customers. Charest said some of her customers came in for a drink at Charlamagne’s recently, then went to go check out Gagliano’s, then came back to report the new restaurant is “wonderful.”

Larry Ringrose, who opened his new business Maine IT Solutions at 225 Water St. in June, said he’s already had a chance to check out his neighbors and is impressed.

“I have been to both Charlamagne’s and Gagliano’s and think they are both great,” Ringrose said. “Hopefully, this starts a chain reaction that will make it more viable for other eateries to open on Water Street. Augusta has the best downtown in central Maine. It is only a matter of time before people realize this and fill the empty space. Good things are happening downtown, and I wanted my company to be a part of that.”

Maine IT Solutions offers information technology to small and mid-size businesses, including client- and server-support services and email, networking and cloud-based services.

Mark Houdlette, of Pittston, opened the gymnasium CrossFit Undaunted on July 9 at the former Water Street site of the Children’s Discovery Museum. He said the business offers customers a core strength and conditioning program using elements from Olympic weightlifting, gymnastics and plyometrics.

Houdlette has been involved in a CrossFit program at Camp Keyes for three years. He said the new commercial location will allow civilians also to participate in the unique form of physical fitness. He said the location also provides easy access for those exercising at the gymnasium to also use the nearby Kennebec River Rail Trail.

Houdlette said Augusta’s downtown, like others, has had good times and bad, but is on an upswing now.

“Augusta’s downtown is redefining itself,” he said.

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