BIDDEFORD – Alix Hopkins sees the emerging RiverWalk as more than a path past old mills and along the banks of the Saco River.
“I view this project as the spine of the redevelopment of Biddeford and the reconnection of Biddeford-Saco,” said Hopkins, director of the coalition that is working to create a river walk through the cities’ historic mill districts. “These projects build communities.”
At times, the divide between York County’s twin cities — whose histories are inextricably linked — seems to run deep. Back when the mills were churning out millions of pounds of textiles each year, most mill workers lived in tenement housing in Biddeford, while owners and managers lived across the river in Saco. The rivalry that developed between the cities has long played out on basketball courts, hockey rinks and during the annual Battle of the Bridge football game.
Now, years after the textile mills closed and as the cities are poised for economic redevelopment, leaders from each community are teaming up to continue to bridge the divide, both literally and figuratively.
The RiverWalk pedestrian bridge — which will be built next year — will link the two downtowns through the mill district, opening up views of the river that have long been inaccessible to residents. At the same time, the cities are working together on a branding effort to market both sides of the river as a destination for redevelopment and tourism. They’ve adopted a new slogan, “Biddeford + Saco, Saco + Biddeford: One dynamic place, no matter how you say it,” to reflect the twin city relationship and its position as an economic engine for York County, according to city leaders.
“Having the river as a divider no longer worked,” said Biddeford Mayor Alan Casavant. “We offer far more when we combine our assets than we do when we erect a brick wall across the Saco River.”
It is the river that has both connected and divided the cities for hundreds of years.
Before Europeans settled the area, Abenakis who lived near Fryeburg traveled downriver to hunt and fish. What is now known as Biddeford was first settled by Europeans after Richard Vines landed at Biddeford Pool four years before the Mayflower arrived in Plymouth, Mass. The area on both sides of the river was incorporated as Saco in 1653, only to be reorganized as Biddeford in 1718.
Frustrated by perilous river crossings to attend church and town meetings, residents on the northeast side of the river split off to become Pepperellborough in 1762 and, finally, Saco in 1805, said Camille Smalley, collections and research manager at the Saco Museum.
Over time, sawmills, lumber mills and shipyards sprang up on both sides of the river. By the mid-1800s, large brick mills powered by the river churned out textiles that were shipped around the globe. Generations of families in both cities — many of French-Canadian and Greek descent — made a living in the mills until the last textile manufacturer closed in 2009, bringing that 150-year tradition to an end.
With large-scale manufacturing gone and the Maine Energy Recovery Co. trash incinerator on its way out of downtown Biddeford, there is renewed interest in bringing businesses into an area that has lost hundreds of jobs in recent years. City officials in Biddeford say the twin cities are increasingly desirable for businesses that want to locate to industrial parks, downtown main streets or renovated mill space.
“We have a dynamic and exciting decade coming,” said Saco Mayor Mark Johnston.
Peter Morelli, the economic development director for Saco, said now is a good time to draw attention to the area.
“I think if you get five to 10 miles away from Saco and Biddeford, the perception is that it’s one community,” he said. “If you look at an aerial photo, it certainly looks like it is.”
Morelli said it makes sense to think about development as a region, not as individual cities, because employers are focused on the labor market, which draws people from across geographic boundaries.
“It’s powerful to say we’re a community of 40,000 people,” said Craig Pendleton, executive director of the Biddeford-Saco Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
The chamber, city development offices and other groups that support the downtowns teamed up to develop a branding and marketing campaign to draw attention to the power Biddeford-Saco has together, said Daniel Stevenson, Biddeford’s economic development director. The resulting slogan shows the connectivity of the two cities and demonstrates their willingness to work together and invest in the future, he said.
Stevenson said that same kind of willingness to work together is on full display with the RiverWalk project, which makes the downtown areas even more desirable for businesses and residents looking to relocate to urban cores.
“As we get more people working and living in our downtowns, they want to be connected to places and spaces,” he said. “(The RiverWalk) really will start building Biddeford and Saco as a place so unique there’s nothing like it north of Boston.”
MILL DISTRICT MASTER PLAN
Talk of creating a river walk began decades ago, but didn’t start to take shape until the mill district master plan was completed in Biddeford in 2009, said Greg Tansley, the RiverWalk project director and Biddeford’s city planner. The plan, which will take several more years to fully design and implement, is to extend the walk from Mechanics Park to Diamond Match Park in Biddeford, and across the river to connect with the existing Saco Riverwalk.
The first phase of the project included the construction of an overlook near North Dam Mill. This summer, Tansley expects a carry-in boat launch to be added at Mechanics Park, followed early next year by the pedestrian access bridge.
The bridge, which will replace an existing steam pipe bridge, is funded by a $426,000 grant from the Maine Department of Transportation’s Quality Communities Program. Biddeford and Saco jointly applied for the funding.
“The river is a mutual asset that should attract people. It’s a lure to the community as opposed to a barrier,” Casavant said. “I think bridging the mills in Saco and Biddeford with the RiverWalk is huge.”
Johnston said it is an exciting time to be in Biddeford-Saco, from the redevelopment of stagnant mills to the expansion of cultural events like the monthly ArtWalk. It’s especially encouraging, he said, to see elements like the pedestrian access bridge poised to lure tourists and residents alike downtown.
“Bridges bring people together. There’s no gap; the other side is not foreign; the other side is not hostile. They are us,” he said. “It’s not just the vision of the Battle of the Bridge anymore. We have progressed tremendously.”
Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at: