Once a shoe-factory town with vacant storefronts, this village has become a veritable shopping nirvana.
Though it has only 7,500 residents, Freeport boasts 110 outlet stores--65 in a seven-block area of downtown alone--including such well-known names as L. L. Bean, Dansk and J. Crew.
Freeport’s unusual range of stores has enabled it to weather the recession better than most other towns in Maine and other New England states, business and government officials say.
“It’s the Disney World of shopping right here,” said J’clyn McLennan, manager of the Mikasa outlet store. “I haven’t felt the hurt of the economy. I’ve heard a lot about it, but I haven’t felt it or seen it.”
But the retailing success has come at a price.
Some longtime residents complain that the town is so clogged with traffic it can take half an hour to drive from one end to the other. And they say the outlet stores cater to tourists and don’t carry the products--such as groceries--needed for daily living.
“I think it stinks,” said Betty Wentworth, 69, who has lived in Freeport since 1952. “They’ve got a lot of stores, but retired people or people of an average income can’t afford to shop there.”
As Wentworth talked in her kitchen on a recent fall day, Kathleen Brodie of Northboro, Mass., hunted for bargains half a mile away in downtown Freeport.
“I’m on my way home from Canada,” she said. “I made an effort to leave Canada early so I’d have time to come by here.”
Brodie, who treks to Freeport about four times a year, said many of the town’s outlets sell merchandise at prices at least 25% lower than similar stores in Boston.
A block away, Meg and Kate Schwartz, sisters from Brielle, N.J., marveled at Freeport’s array of stores. “The stores don’t look like outlet warehouses--they look like regular stores,” said Meg, 21. “It’s a nice atmosphere and a pretty town.”
The town has capitalized on two retailing trends: the popularity of outlet shopping and the American pastime of shopping as recreation, said Beth Gleason, executive director of the Freeport Merchants Assn.
“The American people are becoming savvier consumers looking for the best bargain,” Gleason said. “The other thing is that shopping has become a family event that replaces other forms of recreation.
“That’s why Freeport has been such a success,” she said. “We also have L. L. Bean, which is unique in the world.”
The company’s namesake, L. L. Bean, began selling hunting shoes by mail in 1912. He later added other clothing for hunting, such as wool shirts and socks.
“As people started receiving the catalogue, they decided they wanted to stop in here in Freeport,” said company spokesman Kilton Andrew. “There wasn’t any store there. People would just meet them at the door and take them to the areas where they stocked the merchandise and sell them what they wanted.
“Then people started showing up in the middle of the night and they literally rousted L. L. out of bed,” he said.
So in the 1930s, Bean set aside space for a retail store and kept it open round-the-clock every day of the year. After Bean’s death in 1967 at age 94, his grandson, Leon A. Gorman, expanded the business, taking its appeal beyond hunters and fishermen to outdoors enthusiasts of all types.
But as Bean’s business grew, Freeport’s economic heart--shoe manufacturing--began to slump, in the early 1980s.
Town Manager Dale Olmstead recalls that when he first moved to Freeport in 1982, “the downtown was quite run-down.”
Things began looking up in the summer of 1982 when Dansk opened the first name-brand outlet in downtown Freeport.
“Apparently,” Andrew said, “the wizards of the ‘where do you put stores’ business decided this was a happening place and, boom, look what happened. As the ‘80s heated up, business in Freeport just grew and grew. Freeport has achieved critical mass as a shopping destination.”
Word of Freeport’s shopping attractions quickly spread along the tour bus and tourist circuit.
When promoting Maine, Gleason said, tourism officials will “sell lobsters, the beautiful rocky coast of Maine and they’ll sell L. L. Bean.”
“Bus tours, if they can fit it in their itinerary, will always stop in Freeport,” she said. “I’ve seen as many as 16 to 30 buses in here on a busy day.”
“I think we’ve weathered (the recession) better than other communities,” said Olmstead, the town manager.
Wentworth and her husband ran a dry cleaning service on Main Street from 1953 until they sold their building in 1984 at the start of the outlet boom.
Paul Wentworth acknowledges that the couple made a tidy profit on the sale, but he still laments what the outlet boom has done to life in Freeport.
“They don’t sell the products you need for everyday life since this commercial explosion started,” he said.
Like other Freeport residents, the Wentworths must drive 8 miles north to Brunswick or 5 miles south to Yarmouth to shop in a supermarket.
The couple lives half a mile from the center of town, but they say it’s easier to walk downtown than drive because of the traffic congestion.
“On a weekend, you might run out of gas driving around trying to find a parking place,” Wentworth said with a rueful laugh.
“There are so many ways it isn’t the same town anymore,” Betty Wentworth said with a sigh. “I think it’s just been a lot of hassle.”