There is a sense of relief, and joy, in Bridgton, Maine, this fall. Its hometown ski mountain figuratively returned home when new owners agreed with the community that the name of the local ski resort should revert back to what it always was known by — Pleasant Mountain.
When previous owners, based in Pennsylvania, had changed the ski resort’s name to Shawnee Peak in 1988, the community gasped. There were no Shawnee Indigenous People in the region; their home is rooted in the Ohio River Valley.
Those unacquainted with the region might wonder what the fuss is about, but to citizens who live in Bridgton and the Lakes Region of Maine, Pleasant Mountain exemplified what locals appreciate: a small ski area with a family focus. The trails overlook Moose Pond, and winter sports enthusiasts have been enjoying the snow there for 84 years. In the 1930s, locals cut trails on the north side of the mountain, spelling out “love” with their saws and axes.
No other mountain can lay claim to that unique creative act.
The recent acquisition by Michigan-based Boyne Resorts, and the subsequent name reversal, made Bridgton — if not the entire state — smile.
“We are all so excited to go back to the name Pleasant Mountain,” said Carmen Lone, who is chair of the Bridgton Board of Selectmen. She grew up in Casco, just 10 miles down the road, and was for 18 years executive director of the Bridgton Community Center. “It is sort of like going back to our brand.”
Perhaps synchronicity is at work, for Bridgton is now embarking on Phase One of Community Heart & Soul to help better understand itself as the town also begins updating its comprehensive plan. Encouraged by state law going back to the 1970s, municipal plans have become a tradition in Maine and serve as a blueprint for the future, reflecting a common consensus.
How to reach agreement on town goals relies in great part on a collective community introspection, which is where the Community Heart & Soul process makes a significant difference. In Bridgton, the process has begun as organizers invite residents to ask themselves why this town, near woods and lakes, and with a strong focus on arts, industry and outdoor adventure, is important to them.
A natural legacy
Bridgton, with a population of 5,400, is near the New Hampshire border, and exemplifies a rugged lifestyle geared toward the outdoors. Its downtown has energetic local businesses occupying buildings that range from period brick to wooden storefronts.
It is rural Maine to the core, fiercely independent and self-sufficient. Geographically, Bridgton is at the outer edge of Cumberland County (population 303,000), which is home to Portland, Maine’s largest city, and many of the more suburban and commercial towns in the state. But Bridgton is culturally closer to nearby Oxford County (population 58,000).
“We are really more like Oxford County, geographically and demographically,” said Lone. “We have always felt like we would solve our own problems, that we created our own destiny. We have fierce pride in things created here by local families.”
Bridgton is undergoing change, as the pandemic and other socio-economic forces result in more people “from away” acquiring real estate or converting their summer homes to year-round residences.
In Fall 2021, the Selectmen agreed to produce a 2024 Comprehensive Plan. But how to engage residents— all the residents — of Bridgton in the process?
Bridgton’s Community Development Director Tori Hill applied for a Community Heart & Soul Seed Grant, and in April, town leaders signed a resolution designating that Community Heart & Soul, “is an inclusive community-wide effort that meets people where they are and seeks to understand what matters most to all residents of the Town.”
First a timber town, then a mill town reliant on ample hydro power, Bridgton had been home to woolen and shoe mills, and a tannery. Those were shuttered in the 1980s in a wave of similar manufacturing closures across the state. The workforce slowly adjusted to other income streams: they cultivated the town’s four-season outdoor economy, found jobs in healthcare (Bridgton Hospital is located in town) and small-scale manufacturing associated with U.S. defense.
And, as they found new careers, many started new businesses, in their self-reliant ways.
“This town has been through a couple of rebirths,” Lone said. “Today it is a beautiful, green environmental town.”
During warmer months, its population swells by 20 percent as seasonal homeowners arrive at their camps and cottages, tourists travel to the Lakes Region of Maine, and hikers take to the hills.
At the same time, new industries have emerged in Western Maine — solar farms with large arrays, as well as cannabis growers —seek large tracts of open space. A nationwide housing crunch coupled with a new state law that overrides municipal ordinances regulating how many units a property owner may develop on a parcel of land presents a new era of development pressures.
Susie Guthro, a community resilience builder with the nonprofit Opportunity Alliance, moved to Bridgton four years ago with her family and is local project manager for the Community Heart & Soul process.
She wants to engage the changing face of Bridgton, the younger and newer residents of town, those who may be less familiar with municipal and community functions.
“The hope and goal is to have a more inclusive process,” she said.
This involves inviting residents to express their thoughts about their town — where they like to visit, what they like to do for fun, what concerns they have. The community outreach effort also includes collecting personal stories of those who live in Bridgton, stories told in coffee shops and playgrounds, around kitchen tables or at the local bar; all together they weave a colorful social fabric.
While residents may say they like the town just the way it is, “we need to suss out what that means,” said Catherine Ingraham, a Community Heart & Soul Coach. “How can we keep it, bring it back or reinvent it?”
To Carmen Lone, the task includes inviting all residents to the table. Into her second term as a selectman, and only the second woman in Bridgton history to serve on that board, she actively works to make municipal leadership both friendlier and more accessible.
At first, she was skeptical of the Heart & Soul project, not convinced that it would work in Bridgton. But after a few meetings, she has changed her mind.
“The group seems to be headed in the right direction,” she said. “People feel engaged. They speak freely. I have been impressed with the process.”
But two social sectors, in particular, concern her. They bracket the great middle population, and are not inclined, or are able, to speak up.
“One is the 20 to 30 year-old group,” she said. “A lot of them are single parents, or are under-employed, or do not have a support system to encourage them to move forward.”
The others, “are seniors who are not connected with people, who have mobility issues, who don’t get to church or the community center, and are cut off by lack of information technology skills.”
She wants to see Community Heart & Soul, “go into those communities, have a lunch, a meet-and-greet, or a supper, and recognize they are going to have to babysit some kids. That’s the only way to reach the people. They are not going to come to a community meeting with a lot of well-educated people. That can be intimidating.”
Every link in the chain is vital to its strength, said Carmen, the chain is only as strong as the weakest link.
“What I hope to see come out of this, is to hear from the people we don’t normally hear from,” Lone said. “To get past the obvious players and hear from the disenfranchised, those who don’t feel comfortable talking in public settings, and encourage them to participate.”
That is Community Heart & Soul at work.
Want to bring Community Heart & Soul to your town? Apply for a $10,000 Community Heart & Soul Seed Grant to get started. Learn more at: www.communityheartandsoul.org/seed-grants
Lynda Clancy is editorial director of the Penobscot Bay Pilot, an online community hub that covers a large region of coastal Maine. The beauty and complexity of small towns have inspired her as a writer and photographer since the 1980s. An award-winning journalist, she serves on the Maine Press Association’s Board of Directors, the Maine Legislature’s Right To Know Advisory Committee, as well as local community nonprofits and municipal committees.