2015-07-10 / Front Page

Neighborhood plans fifth Willard Fest

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

Youngsters, and the young at heart, march around South Portland’s Willard Square during the 2014 Willard Fest neighborhood block party. The fifth annual festival will take place this weekend, from 3-6 p.m. on Saturday, July 11. (Courtesy photo) Youngsters, and the young at heart, march around South Portland’s Willard Square during the 2014 Willard Fest neighborhood block party. The fifth annual festival will take place this weekend, from 3-6 p.m. on Saturday, July 11. (Courtesy photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — An inclusive block party in one of South Portland’s oldest neighborhoods is celebrating its fifth anniversary this year, which may come as something of a surprise given that it was founded to counter divisiveness in the community.

In 2011, residents of the Willard Square neighborhood were squaring off over a proposal put forth by Pillsbury Street resident Glenn Perry, who announced plans to build a new business on a vacant lot next to his home. The store, to have been called Mr. Delicious, was intended as an upscale eatery, but the fa├žade design was derided by some locals as looking like “a cowboy saloon.”

The very public and sometimes acrimonious debate pitted those who favored personal property rights against those intent on guarding the architectural integrity of a neighborhood dominated by late-Victorian homes. The area had grown around the terminal point of the old trolley line from Portland — explaining the wide, oddly shaped roadway at the intersection of Preble and Pillsbury Streets — and was then just coming back into its own after several decades of disrepair.

The resurgence was led by the 2004 opening of what, two years later, would become Scratch Baking Co. It’s success was quickly followed by a host of business openings in the square and an old favorite, Bathra’s Market, had just announced its return when Perry unveiled his plans. Suddenly, it seemed as if the small communal neighborhood had sensed too much of a good thing and, at city hall, meeting after meeting was packed to the rafters.

“I went to a city hall meeting and there was a lot of arguing going on,” recalled Vincent Street resident Wynne Wirth on Tuesday. “I just saw how it fragmented the community, all with different viewpoints.

“There’s quite a bit of diversity here,” Wynne said, noting that when moving into the area during the 2008 presidential election, “it was signs for Obama and McCain, one after the other, all down the street.”

“I realized then this was a pretty mixed neighborhood. It’s not like the east end, or Portland’s west end, which are all 90 percent Democratic communities,” Wirth said. “It was just really evident to me that there was no cohesiveness. So then, everyone was bitching at each other about the square and I thought, we all have different opinions, but we’re still neighbors, and it would be great to know each other.”

The day after the city hall session, Wirth saw a friend, Tom Kubaskic, out on the city’s Greenbelt trail. She recounted “what a bad experience it was, seeing everybody argue” and wondered aloud if it might be possible to shut down Willard Square for a day for a sort of block party.

“I just wanted to celebrate this wonderful neighborhood and just get to know each other,” he recalled.

Kubasic thought that was a good idea. So good, in fact, that he got back on his bike and rode immediately to city hall, to check out the required permits.

As it does today, Willard Fest included music, local food and artisans, children’s activities and neighborly chats. A highlight of the first fest was a “wishing well” walking maze created by Sharon Davis out of driftwood from nearby Willard Beach. As part of the interactive art display, participants were given a pieces of fabric on which to write down a wish, to hang inside the maze.

“It was kind of a sacred space. It was so cool to see everybody’s wishes. It really brought together the neighborhood in a really special way,” said Wirth. It gave people a way to connect to each other, and bridged some of the gaps, which was exactly what we were trying to go for.”

Accounts vary on attendance for that first Willard Fest. Depending on who one asks, estimates range from 200 to 600 people. Still, starting from nothing, it was something.

“We were very excited,” said Wirth. “It wasn’t overcrowded, but it was a big enough of an event that it really felt like a success.”

After Wirth initiated the first Fest, Sarah Goodwin took over as chairman.

“We had a small committee that year and saw the size of the Fest double. It was a huge hit,” said Laurel LaBauve, who chaired the event in 2013 and 2014, when attendance reportedly topped 1,600.

“Many members of the committee have remained and, at this point, we have a good system in place,” LaBauve said. “This year Carla Yount and Amanda Parkhurst are leading the charge.”

“The objective has been the same for five years — to make a great neighborhood even better by bringing together neighbors for an afternoon of music, storytelling, kids’ activities, good food, and fun,” La- Bauve said.

“We have an amazing group of sponsors that support us financially every year, and there’s a lot of local talent that’s always willing to perform,” LaBauve said. “Finally, the city of South Portland has been incredibly supportive as this has evolved over the last five years. Whether it’s arranging for trash and recycling, providing barricades, signs and cones, or bringing the fire truck for all the kids to see. We couldn’t do it without them.”

In fact, the festival has had a wider impact on South Portland than just fostering togetherness in a once-divided neighborhood.

According to South Portland’s new sustainability coordinator, Julie Rosenbach, her efforts to reduce waste at upcoming city events stems from a model spearheaded at last year’s Willard Fest, at which just one bag of trash was generated despite the burgeoning crowd.

“Absolutely the only thing we threw away were the plastic forks. It was pretty amazing,” said Todd Erickson, a member of South Portland’s energy and recycling committee.

A Willard Fest volunteer since the second year, Erickson got involved as a musician with his band, The Substitutes. As a resident of the Meeting House Hill neighborhood, he’s enjoyed something of an outsider’s perspective.

“The focus has been to celebrate the square, people who live and do business here, but it’s true that, after the trolley went out, the area kind of fell apart,” he said. “It fell into horrible decay between the ‘70s and ‘90s. When I moved to South Portland in 1997, you didn’t want to live in Willard Square. It was horrible.”

And what turned it around? Sitting on a picnic table in front of Scratch Baking Co., Erickson threw a thumb over his shoulder.

“Right here. This was it. End of story,” he said. “When this guy (Bob Johnson) opened up, everybody said he was crazy. Everybody said he was moving into crimeland to open up a coffee shop.

“But he was a success and once they brought in foot traffic, people started looking around and thinking, I could fix this up, I could fix that up,” Erickson said. “People were suddenly like, hey, I don’t have to pay $350,000 in Portland what I could pay $170,000 here for twice the house and a yard.”

Still, the Willard resurgence has come with a price.

“Now, it’s $350,000 for a piece of crap teardown in Willard Square,” Erickson said. “You almost can’t afford to live here anymore, so there’s that, too.”

That jump in property values has slowed the growth spurt somewhat and Willard remains a family neighborhood despite the an influx of Portlanders from across the bridge. The neighborhood is built as much on nearby Small Elementary School and “Great Person” crossing guard Michelle Danois — a local institution and household name — as it is on business in the square. Willard Fest is as much about celebrating the blue collar history of the neighborhood, founded on a fishing village, as it is on a more modern “hippy vibe,” as Erickson puts it.

“The recent growth has its benefits,” she said. “We have all these amazing restaurants and bakeries where you get only the best foods. But it’s also been a real bummer for a lot of people. This has always been a working class community. I know, for me, the goal has always been to work within it, and to make it work better, but not to change it so much.”

“Willard Square is a very special place,” LaBauve said, when asked why she’s put in so many hours over they years to keep Willard Fest up and running.

“My husband and I own two businesses in the neighborhood —The Whole Dog Market and SoPo Cottage — and can’t imagine a better place to live,” she said. “Supporting Willard Fest is a way that I can help give back to this great neighborhood that we’re lucky enough to live and work in.”

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