The powerhouse behind downtown Norway and Norway Downtown

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By A.M. Sheehan

NORWAY — Easily recognizable, known far and wide, Norway’s Andrea Burns can be found in the warm months pulling weeds along Main Street, picking up litter and talking with merchants, selectboard members and potential investors all to one end: preserving Norway’s historic character and making it a destination.

Andrea Burns, July 2014
Andrea Burns, July 2014

President of Norway Downtown since 2011 and member since 2006, Burns stepped down last month after working tirelessly for years to help Norway evolve into a vibrant, economically healthy, historically preserved community.

Sometimes it’s by asking a shop to remove a sign that isn’t sympathetic to the historical image the downtown portrays and sometimes it’s wooing a potential business to chose Main Street for its location.

Monthly it has been leading the Norway Downtown board with recommendations based on countless meetings and research she has done. And almost weekly it is attending Norway Downtown committee meetings such as design, promotions and economic development – of which she is the chair.

Under her leadership, the organization has been named an official Maine Downtown Network Community by, and received a number of state-wide awards from, the Maine Development Foundation.

In a newspaper interview in 2011, Burns said:

“‘There’s so much regionalization but someone has to keep an eye on the immediate, the details,’ said Burns. ‘The regional idea can only be sustained by healthy communities.’

“‘Economic progress must be coupled with a sensitivity to quality of place,’ said Burns. ‘We don’t want Norway to lose its uniqueness. We want to stand in Norway and know where we are. We want to know its history and care about its environment. And that ultimately brings good business.’

“Her initial desire to see the area’s cultural assets preserved arose in 1996, while she and her husband were working as educators in Oxford Hills schools. They had moved to Waterford from Massachusetts in 1971, and Burns had been working as an elementary school teacher ever since.

“‘When I was teaching, I was very aware aware that our communities were being destroyed. Sprawl and demolition was changing our communities permanently,’ said Burns.

“‘McLaughlin Gardens in 1996 was a place that cried out for preservation. It was going to be a parking lot or a grocery store.’

“Burns, along with another Oxford Hills woman Lee Dassler, established the McLaughlin Foundation, a non-profit organization that raises money and support for the preservation of the gardens. The garden on Main Street in Paris, founded in 1936, is now 75 years old and known across the state of Maine.

“Burns’ interest in preservation also led her to Norway Downtown, with which she has been involved in projects with the Gingerbread House and Opera House, worked to improve the look and climate of downtown, and promoted the Norway Arts Festival, Halloween Fest, and Easter Fest.

“‘What has surprised me all along has been the connectedness of my interests. What’s a passion in one place connects to my interests in another,’ Burns said.

“Despite all her own efforts though, Burns said any success enjoyed by Norway Downtown is attributable to the efforts of everyone in the community. She said organizations like the Norway Landmarks Preservation Society and the board of selectmen, as well as individuals like Anne Siekman of the Library and Debra Partridge of the recreation department are instrumental to the preservation of Main Street.

“‘What really sustains me has been the willingness of people to help preserve their own community,’ said Burns. ‘There are so many people who give so much time to so many things.'”

Who is she?

“She is non-stop energy,” says Tony Morra, owner/property manager at Bisco Properties and a Norway Downtown board member.

A retired teacher of 25 years at Fox School, she has served on the boards of the Waterford Library, Western Maine Health, the McLaughlin Garden & Homestead, Maine Preservation, and the Norway Landmarks Preservation Society (Friends of the Gingerbread House).

The downtown area of Norway has changed drastically in the past few years. Part of that was the restoration of the Opera House. Part of that was Burns diligence in drawing business here.

Morra goes on to say how Burns “inspired me to help her get the Rustfield Cemetery back in shape … which I’m proud of.”

“Andrea almost single-handedly convinced town and community leaders of the importance of saving historic buildings downtown,” says current Co-President Scott Berk, “saving and preserving the historic character of Main Street.

“She was instrumental in getting the opera house listed as one of Maine’s most endangered buildings.

“My first memory of Andy is watching her walk up and down Main Street with a garbage bag picking up trash and I thought there’s this distinguished looking woman picking up trash … .

“She is responsible for saving the Gingerbread House … she secured an anonymous $100,000 donation to move it and negotiated the gift of the house and land.”

Erica Jed, board member, agrees with them about her diligence in picking up trash. Further, Jed likens her running of board meetings with her running of her classroom – firmly.

Calling her a “key leader” Berk laughs at Burns’ style.

“She won’t let an issue drop, she reminds and reminds and reminds until it gets done.

“She has demonstrated an outstanding commitment to the cause of Norway Downtown and Main Street,” says board member Jim Douglas. “I have never met a president of a board who put such heart and soul into making things happen.”

“Andy was a Godsend for Norway Downtown,” board member Dennis Gray agrees.  “Her enthusiasm and passion animated the board and almost forced us to help her achieve our goals.

“Her commitment to historic preservation furthered the Opera House renovation.  She helped place the Opera House on the list of most endangered properties, which lead to the stabilization to save the building.

“She is knowledgeable and knows a plethora of individuals to help Norway Downtown further its goals.

“As a former first grade teacher, she has just the right leadership skill set to work with the Downtown board … .”

Empathy, wisdom

Brenda Melhus has a more personal perspective of Burns.

“I have worked with Andrea on Norway Main Street since 2007. She approached me because she knew that I had taken photos of events at the high school and Norway Downtown was looking for someone who was not a professional to take photos for the organization of ND events and related photos of Main Street.

“Facing an empty nest and with the recent loss of my mother for whom I had been a long-term caregiver and thus having no purpose to fill my days, Andrea scraped me up off the sidewalk and I became the official unprofessional photographer for Norway Downtown.

“After taking the ‘job,’ I became a member of the Promotions Committee, and eventually was asked to join the board and to chair the Design Committee. Andrea had a plan for me and I never even knew.

“I accompanied Andrea to Maine Downtown Center meetings, Growsmart meetings, and to MDC Institute Sessions to learn how to be more effective in the work that we do. I gained exposure to Andrea’s endless network of Main Street contacts and contacts in the world of preservation.

“How does this all relate back to Norway Main Street? Through these contacts, Andrea has spent countless hours working for the past 10 years to make Main Street what it is today.

“Keeping in touch with the Norway selectboard to keep them abreast of what Norway Downtown is doing, talking with potential businesses to bring them to Main Street (Agren Appliance, La Donna Zabella), bringing preservation representatives to Norway to educate the public on the economic impact of preservation (the Norway Maine Opera House is a direct result of that), talking with BikeMaine and finding the right people in town to make that event go smoothly, discussing with a business owner not to asphalt his entire parking lot, but let Norway Downtown put in a garden between the sidewalk and the parking lot … and the list goes on.

“There is nothing too big or too small for Andrea to tackle. Norway Main Street is always in the forefront of any conversation that Andrea has and she is always advocating for us both at home and when she is visiting elsewhere.

“She is, however, always reluctant to put herself in the forefront, preferring to have others in photos of Norway Downtown’s accomplishments. With Andrea at the helm of Norway Downtown, Norway has become renowned as a rural Maine community where folks want to live, work, and play.

“We are the town that others want to become. She has, and still is, always working in conjunction with our many partners, in particular the town, to make things happen.

“She is my mentor, my guide, and my friend.”

“Andrea H. Burns (Andy) has been around Norway for several years, having moved here from Waterford with her husband, Hank,” says board Treasurer Bruce Cook. “She has served on the Stephens Memorial Hospital Board of Trustees and worked with its volunteers. She has chaired Norway Downtown for many years and is now its past president. You will often see Andy on Main Street visiting shop owners or picking weeds from around trees and from the sidewalks. She has been instrumental, along with Brenda Melhus, in obtaining funds to keep the town parking lots neat and clean and working with Tish Carr to keep trees along Main Street.

“She has been instrumental in raising funds for the Norway Arts Festival and the Easter and Halloween Fests. More often than not you might find her in Town Manager David Holt’s office asking for some project or wanting Main Street swept ahead of some event. She is tenacious.

“She has worked hard to put Norway on the map. She has us joining more committees and groups than I can remember and she is still chugging.

We all owe Andy a big debt of gratitude.”

Norway better

“My first memory of Andrea Burns was on the sidewalk in front of Key Bank one sunny day in 2003,” Norway Town Manager David Holt reminisces. “She was at the center of a group of people gathered to celebrate the fact that the Norway Opera House building had been declared one of Maine’s most endangered historic properties by Maine Preservation.

“At the time I did not see this as a cause for celebration. As one who thought it was his job to defend Norway, I felt that I should spring into action and defend the Opera House and the virtue of the town.

“But over the last 13 years I have come to realize that Andrea had it right that day in 2003, about the Opera House, about the future of the village and about getting people to work together to solve tough problems by building consensus.”

“Andy has brought Norway Downtown to the forefront on new definitions of what a Main Street Community’looks like,'” says current Norway Downtown Co-President Katie Letourneau.  “Andy volunteers at all of the Norway Downtown festivals and functions. She has played an integral part in the Norway Arts Festival – delivering countless information packets to our Main Street businesses.”

“In the nearly 20 years I have known Andrea and been involved as the Oxford Hills Chamber director, her desire to improve the aesthetic value of the downtown area of Norway, and her leadership in doing so has been palpable, not only in regard to the volume of hours she has tirelessly devoted to this cause, but also the results of that work,” says Oxford Hills Chamber of Commerce Executive Director John Williams.

“Andrea believes in the historicity of Main Street and what it can mean to a community like Norway and from a broader perspective, the greater Oxford Hills.

“Downtown Norway, under the leadership of Andrea Burns, has succeeded in bringing the kind of notoriety to a historic Main Street that very few others could,” Williams continues. “Her passion for creating an environment that nurtures responsible development is admirable.”

“Andrea has a deep caring and love for Norway and has been working very hard for many years on the Norway Downtown Main Street program,” says Deb Partridge, Norway Parks and Recreation director and former co-chair of the ND Promotions Committee. “She has kept the committees on task with the National Main Street Four Point Approach to revitalization and economic restructuring.
What people may not know about her is that she is equally comfortable meeting people in the state and national Main Street Center programs, obtaining grants and support, as she is getting her hands dirty weeding gardens along Norway Main Street.

“Andrea collaborates with the town departments to get things done that would not normally fall into their schedule. Tasks that ‘fall through the cracks,’ so to speak, such as sweeping the streets on a regular basis as opposed to just once during the spring, keeping trees on Main Street, upkeep of parking areas, new and/or improved signage, enhancing our gateways, helping create events to bring people to Main Street and much more.”

“Andy is (and has been) a huge supporter of our local businesses and historic buildings – as well as constantly making it her charge to ‘beautify’ Main Street – as we would often see her weeding and/or picking up litter along the Main Street,” Letourneau adds.

“I have been a board member for more years than I can count and can without hesitation say that Andy brought a revitalization to our board and committees.  She attends countless Maine Downtown Center meetings as well as numerous town meetings and Planning Board meetings.

“I could go on and on but I would like to describe Andy Burns in three words: steadfast, community focused and mentor.”

Holt sums up Burns’ style and perseverance saying, “Andrea has been tireless in facing problems, getting the community involved and convincing late comers to the party to drink the Kool-Aid to work toward the solutions. Andrea is the model of what a volunteer should be … maybe not from the point of view of her family waiting patiently at home, but certainly from the vantage point of the downtown. Her hours of dedicated service have been unsurpassed in my experience.

“No effort has been too big or too small … and all the many achievements have come together as great evidence of her success. The Opera House that didn’t fall down, the Gingerbread House that moved up the street, the foot-bridge over the stream, the gardens and flowers around the village, Down East Magazine choosing Norway as one of the state’s best places to live, folks walking around the village on summer evenings, most of the storefronts filled most of the time, a new medical building adding service and interaction with the Main Street, improved gateway entrances to the downtown … heck, we have even had festivals about food, electric cars and welcomed BikeMaine to Norway.

“Given all those achievements, I begrudgingly doubled her pay last year. With the increase, she was still not compensated … (just the way the math worked).

“Yes, Andrea has been a great pain to me … trying to convince me to do things I didn’t have the courage, money or ambition to do. … But Andrea has always prevailed and I know that Norway is better for it.”

Thanks to Burns and her team, Norway has been recognized as an Outstanding Maine Downtown Network Community and it continues to grow and prosper. Burns stepped down from her role as president of the organization in 2016. However, she continues serving on the board and remains active on all the committees.

And she continues to pull weeds, pick up litter and woo new businesses to town.

asheehan@sunmediagroup.net