BIDDEFORD – After more than three years of planning, construction is set to begin Aug. 8 on a multimillion dollar pedestrian pathway that will meander through the mill district along the Saco River, tying together various downtown areas.

The first phase of the RiverWalk project, to be completed by October, includes repairing a collapsed river wall near the entrance to North Dam Mill, building a cantilevered river overlook above the wall, reconfiguring nearby parking, improving the Main Street pedestrian crossing and building a stepped walkway from the street down to the lower section of Mechanics Park.

“It’s a fairly aggressive construction schedule,” City Planner Greg Tansley said. It’s a good time to do the work because water levels are lower in summer, he added.

There is no final cost estimate for the entire project, Tansley said, but state funds and $1.5 million in city tax increment financing funds from the Biddeford Crossing shopping center will help pay for it.

The first phase will cost $550,070, and be funded by $463,000 from the state’s Riverfront Community Development Bond, with the balance paid with TIF money.

On July 19, the City Council voted 6-3 to accept the first-phase bid offered by Maietta Enterprises Inc. of Scarborough, with councilors Clement Fleurent, David Bourque and Bob Mills opposing. Although Maietta had the lowest of five bids, Bourque wanted the city to accept the $559,891 bid from Biddeford-based Peter Petit Excavation.

“This is a huge project for the city, a gateway to our city. I totally feel in my heart that the city should hire local people on the best level they can … anything other than that is outrageous,” he said during the council meeting.

Tansley said the city will wrap up its contract with Maietta by the end of next week.

Project Manager Craig Babbidge expects crews to start work on the first phase by Aug. 8. He estimated the first phase will employ 80 to 100 people.

Biddeford RiverWalk Coalition Director Alix Hopkins said he is glad the project is moving from idea to inception. “We’re all thrilled this first piece is going to be worked on this summer,” Hopkins said. “You can only talk about it for so long.”

The Riverwalk will open up long-obscured views of the Saco River. After the mills along the river closed, the area deteriorated badly and was hidden from city view by the tall, long brick wall that surrounds the area.

In recent years, developers have started renovating mill buildings for offices, apartments and businesses. As the city began work on a Mill District Master Plan, the idea of a RiverWalk emerged. The pathway complements efforts by city officials and local organizations to revitalize Biddeford’s Main Street and downtown district.

“This project is symbolic of the renaissance happening down there. To have this actually happening, taking form, is just very exciting for so many people in Biddeford,” Hopkins said.

Choosing this section of the RiverWalk as the first phase was a strategic move, she said. The work in the coming months will be visible by pedestrians and motorists. Hopkins hopes this will jump-start momentum for future phases of the project.

Tansley said building a pedestrian bridge from North Dam Mill to Saco Island is the next step. He said the city will seek design proposals soon. Tansley expects work on the bridge to start by spring 2012.

Hopkins said interpretive and directional signs, as well as public art for the area, are also in the works.

Work on the RiverWalk will continue in various phases as the city secures funding, Tansley said. Future work will include extending the walkway from Mechanics Park to the city-owned Diamond Match property, and connecting it with Rotary Park and the Eastern Trail, Tansley said.

While there is no set date for completion of the project, Tansley said he hopes to see it done, “as soon as possible. The sooner the better I think.”

Staff Writer Emma Bouthillette can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

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