Doug Sanford has a vision that comes with approximately one million square feet of rock solid real estate in the heart of downtown Biddeford.

Sanford, a member of North Dam Mill LLC, is a seasoned developer who has a controlling interest in about half of the iconic brick mills located at the head of Saco Bay. What happens inside the perimeter of the property now has the potential to be fully integrated in ways that spark the imagination of Sanford.

The question is whether or not that spark can light up Biddeford’s future.

Since the properties were vacated, Sanford has been busy transforming various spaces of the complex into a collection of chic offices and affordable apartments with high ceilings and sunny windows.

Enormous hardwood beams and wooden floors are complemented by long rows of decorative supporting columns that extend the entire length of each level.

Many of the apartments rival the most spacious lofts of Manhattan in character and design. The stylish offices are a hive of low-cost enterprise.

“It’s ready for fit-up,” says Sanford who sees the complex as one of the most exciting urban developments in the country. When given the chance to fully understand all the assets of the property, it is easy to see why Sanford is onto something of enormous potential: converting mills for the new millennium.

The manufacturers who occupied the buildings didn’t scrimp on improvements. New roofs, ample electrical systems and well-maintained exteriors are the legacy of operations that once housed the world’s largest cotton weaving mill. In addition, it is adjacent to one of the state’s fiber optic hubs.

Amtrak’s Downeaster is nearly at the doorstep and an onsite steam plant heats the entire complex with ease.

With Maine’s electrical energy costs being nearly twice the national average, Sanford plans to convert the steam plant to on-site electrical generation providing tenants power at a fraction of commercial utilities.

“And there’s no transmission cost,” says Sanford.

Though Sanford knows that any employer wishing to expand or relocate would find the space attractive, he has gone much further in thinking about a truly transformative concept: an urban high school at the heart of this residential and commercial campus.

Voters in Biddeford recently approved a $35 million bond issue to construct a new high school to replace its badly decaying facility. The entire financial burden for the new school, however, will fall onto Biddeford taxpayers as there is no state money for the project.

Sanford believes that a mill-based high school provides a variety of positive outcomes.

First, with the infrastructure already in place, he believes a new state-of-the-art school in the old mill would save millions of dollars. For Biddeford property taxpayers already stressed by cuts in state aid to education, that is a compelling argument in itself.

Second, with onsite heating, cooling and power, the long term operating costs with which schools are struggling would be far less.

Third, with falling enrollments, Sanford sees a high school that could give up space to lower its costs — or expand if the number of students increases.

Finally, students would gain ready access to the jobs created by businesses that will continue to locate and expand within the complex.

After-school jobs, internships and a new community spirit could make career development a seamless transition for students and their families in the years ahead.

For many of today’s students, their “memeres and peperes” came every day to work at the factory as did their great grandparents. This concept literally builds the future on the past.

Sanford will make the commercial and residential dimension of his vision succeed, but creating a public high school requires broader community support.

It will take political courage and vision to postpone breaking ground in June at the old high school to explore this alternative. But what an exciting legacy for the mayor and city councilors: a lower-cost cutting edge high school in the midst of enterprise and something worthy of national recognition.

Sanford is not alone in this transformation. Owners of the other million square feet of mill property in Biddeford and across the river on Saco Island also are converting their buildings to new residential and commercial uses.

It’s happening and the question is: Will the public embrace a big, hairy, audacious idea that puts education at the heart of Biddeford’s renaissance?

With the potential of creating thousands of jobs for the next generation and avoiding millions of dollars being added to the tax burden in Biddeford, residents may want to call a time-out to make a fully informed decision and answer the question: Will our children and grandchildren have a brighter future as the Tigers of “Mill”ennium High?

What do you think and what should be done about it?

 

Tony Payne is executive director of the Alliance for Maine’s Future, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that focuses on the effects of public policy on the state’s economy. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]