BIDDEFORD – From a single establishment in Brewer, Thomas Walsh’s empire has grown into Ocean Properties Ltd., one of the largest privately held hotel companies in the United States.

The company — Scarborough Downs’ partner in proposing a racino complex in the city — owns or operates 137 hotels and employs 7,700 people in the United States and Canada. They range from AAA four-diamond resorts like the Sagamore in the Adirondacks and Wentworth by the Sea in New Castle, N.H., to airport hotels to more modest lodgings run under familiar names like EconoLodge and Comfort Inn.

In Maine, its holdings include high-profile properties in Bar Harbor, the Samoset Resort in Rockport and others from Bangor to Portland. Other headline-generating activities in Maine include the company’s bid to redevelop the Maine State Pier in Portland and a buying spree in Bar Harbor.

Biddeford Downs would be Ocean Properties’ first foray into gaming, although one of its hotel partners in Canada operates a casino in Winnipeg, Manitoba — a relationship that the company says will provide it access to knowledgeable operators.

Biddeford Downs does not represent the first step in a larger plan to get involved in gaming, said Tom Varley, the company’s senior vice president of operations and point man for the racino project as well as Walsh’s son-in-law.

“Our focus is strictly on Biddeford Downs. We’re still very much a family company, and there isn’t really a long-term strategy. It’s really from the gut and from where the heart is,” Varley said during a recent interview at the downtown office of Pepperell Downs, the political action committee formed by the racino partners.

When Scarborough Downs approached the company with the idea for the racino venture this summer, Walsh saw the opportunity to invest in something he believes in, Varley said. Walsh already knew Sharon Terry, owner of Scarborough Downs, through harness racing, an area he’s been interested in since childhood.

Mayor Joanne Twomey touted the company’s success, reputation and decades of experience in expressing her confidence that it will be able to develop a “high-class” destination with Scarborough Downs.

“Everything they’ve done turns to gold,” Twomey said at a news conference announcing the partnership last month.

In other communities where Ocean Properties has done business, some echo Twomey’s enthusiasm, but others describe difficulties in their dealings.

“I think I can safely say their projects end up looking very attractive, but the process of getting there is not always an easy path,” said Ruth Eveland, chairwoman of the Bar Harbor Town Council.

Eveland conceded that the town’s complicated protocols may have contributed to “differences of opinions about hoop jumping” that may not be in play in other communities.

Varley agreed.

“I think every city has its idiosyncrasies. We try to accommodate everyone. Sometimes it’s more challenging than other times,” he said.

In Portsmouth, N.H., where the company has one of its corporate offices and several hotels, City Attorney Robert Sullivan said Ocean Properties fought a project in which another developer would have used $15 million in public money to build a parking garage that would have been owned by the city.

“means of litigation, Ocean Properties was able to successfully frustrate the goals of the city of Portsmouth in attempting to bring a large conference center to the downtown for purposes of economic development,” he said.

Sullivan noted that while Ocean Properties objected to the use of public money in Portsmouth, it was also involved in a Florida project that used public funds. Varley said the two situations were different, with the Portsmouth project attempting to use public money for a private project.

Ocean Properties was chosen as the developer for a hotel and condominium complex at the Palm Beach County Convention Center in 2004. In 2008, county officials released Ocean Properties from its contract a few months after the company sought more time and additional public money for the stalled project. Varley said the company left the project because of the hard-hit economy — a situation the company expects will have improved by the time Biddeford Downs would open.

Around Portland, the company may be familiar because of the competition to redevelop the Maine State Pier. Ocean Properties and The Olympia Cos. each was vying to win the $160 million project.

The City Council eventually chose Olympia after a lengthy, politically charged debate, only to abandon negotiations when they reached an impasse. The city then approached Ocean Properties, which ultimately decided in early 2009 — nearly two years after the competing plans were unveiled — that it had too many other projects by then.

Portland City Councilor Jill Duson, who was mayor at the time, said she found both companies responsive and “equally reasonable direct and open” through the process.

Ron Conover, supervisor of the town of Bolton, N.Y., described Ocean Properties as a “very, very good corporate citizen.” The company runs the Sagamore, which it renovated, in town.

“They are excellent neighbors and an excellent company. The people are very professional, and I think they try to respond and address any concerns that are out there. I can’t say enough about them,” he said.

 

Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be

contacted at 791-6383 or at:

[email protected]