Some of the more astute readers of Labelscar may have noticed that we quietly launched a new feature the other day, accessible via the page navigation in the top right of the page. All the Malls of New England is modeled after our friend Mitch Glaser’s similarly-named All the Malls of Southern California, where I’m going to seek to catalog positively everything in my little corner of the country.
There’s really no better place to start than at the end: the last New England mall that I visited, in June of 2005. As you might imagine, it’s also–by some measure–the most remote mall in New England: Presque Isle, Maine’s Aroostook Centre Mall.
Now, for those of you who live outside of New England, it may take some additional explanation to show just how remote that Aroostook Centre is. Located seven hours north of Boston (making it only marginally closer to Boston than Baltimore, Maryland) in the plains of northern Maine, this half-a-million square foot mall is perhaps the primary attraction in Presque Isle, the keystone city in Aroostook County, Maine. Aroostook County itself is a large, rural, impoverished county located in extreme northern Maine. It’s the largest county in land area east of the Mississippi River and is known mainly as a somewhat faded potato farming region. Presque Isle (with a population of approximately 10,000) is so far removed that it’s even home to its own tiny television market. Presque Isle is located a relatively short distance from the New Brunswick border, and is within an hour or so of the Quebec border. It’s about 150 miles north of Bangor, the closest city.
Strangely, Aroostook Centre Mall is the third largest mall in Maine, trailing only after the state’s only two major malls in Portland and Bangor. Even Lewiston/Auburn, the state’s second largest metropolitan area, doesn’t host a mall as large as the half-million square foot Aroostook Centre. Still, Aroostook Centre seems to have been built in a fit of optimism in the early 1990s and opened in 1993, out of the hopes that Canadian shoppers would flock to the mall for American goods and inject much-needed tourism dollars into struggling Aroostook County. Clearly it hasn’t happened.
JP, one of our frequent posters, noted this about Aroostook Centre in the comments not long after I first made this post:
The thing to remember about this mall was that 1991 or so was when the Canadian cross-border shopping craze was at its height. The GST (a nationwide 7% sales tax that has since been reduced to 6%) had just been introduced. Houlton and Calais (closest Maine towns to Fredericton and Saint John NB respectively) became temporary boomtowns.
Unfortunately, by the time it actually opened, the madness had subsided due to new Canadian duty rules. It was also around this time, perhaps coincidentally, that Wal-Mart entered Maine. It also was too far from any major Canadian population centres to be that big a draw. People in Fredericton, still a good 2+ hours away and the closest Canadian city of any appreciable size, still drove the extra hour, along a better road, to Bangor, if they still shopped across the border at all (and don’t get me wrong, they still do – witness the New Brunswick license plates at the Bangor Mall or the Houlton Wal-Mart).
Not only did they overestimate the Canadian effect, the County’s largest employer, Loring Air Force Base, shut down in 1994. That and other factors sent the local economy into a tailspin. (It got so bad that two Phish concerts became the economic highlight of the late 90s in the area.)
The most recent development: the adjacent movie theatre, the only one in Presque Isle, closed last year. A Lowe’s is replacing it. There were plans earlier this year for another theatre inside the mall, but I’m not sure if it actually happened. Even if it is built, it will only have half the screens as the former one. That right there is the story of Presque Isle and this mall in a nutshell.
Perhaps the most telling element of this mall was that, upon my visit in June 2005, I noticed a group of teenagers walking through the mall wearing Old Navy T-shirts. There’s no Old Navy in this mall; they had to have bought those shirts way down in Bangor.