SANFORD – When Bill Underwood looks at the number of tourists who visit Maine and New Hampshire each year, he sees an untapped source of revenue for Sanford.
The former mill town in the heart of York County misses much of the lucrative tourist traffic that passes to its east and west, but Underwood and a local businessman have an idea that they hope will change that: a unique year-round theme park, possibly with a “Maine outdoor adventure” theme.
“It would be something different that doesn’t exist,” he said.
Underwood, a Springvale resident who worked in the tour and travel industry and now serves on a local economic restructuring committee, is leading the theme park project along with H. Allen Mapes.
“This seemed like the kind of industry we should be taking advantage of,” Underwood said. “We can attract new development, whether it’s a traditional theme park or a series of attractions.”
Underwood and Mapes have raised nearly all of the $35,000 they need to bring two consultants to Sanford to do a preliminary feasibility study.
The City Council contributed $5,000 toward the study; the rest of the money has come primarily from donations from the business community.
The amusement park consultants are tentatively scheduled to be in Sanford at the end of July for a tour that will include a fly-over in a helicopter to view potential sites for a theme park, Underwood said. He expects the report on the consultants’ findings to be ready a month later.
Sanford, built along the Mousam River, endured the closure of its mills in the 1950s and the decline of its industrial base in the 1980s and 1990s.
“When we lost our textile mills, we took a terrible hit. We lost 3,000 jobs overnight,” Mapes said. “I don’t think we’ve ever recovered from that terrible blow. It’s been a long, hard battle.”
Sanford had high hopes a decade ago that a casino might bring visitors and spark the local economy, but that plan was rejected by voters statewide.
The theme park isn’t intended to compete with other attractions in the region, Underwood said. “For instance, Saco has outdoor water parks and York has a zoo and a kids’ amusement park. We wouldn’t want to duplicate that and draw people away from those parks.”
Underwood and Mapes said Sanford’s attraction could include an indoor water park that operates year-round, something the area lacks.
City Manager Steven Buck said he and other city officials are interested to see “what potential Sanford has to create a tourism destination.”
“This could be part of the diversification of Sanford’s economy,” he said, creating the “base that Sanford needs in order to take part in the tourism industry.”
Sanford officials have been focused in recent years on stimulating the local economy and courting new development.
At the beginning of this year, Sanford became a city, a designation that officials say better reflects its stature as Maine’s seventh-largest community. It also introduced a new motto, “Sanford Maine: Explore. Create. Grow.”
Underwood said a theme park would add tax revenue and boost other businesses in the city. It would also provide needed jobs, he said.
Sanford’s proximity to southern Maine and New Hampshire is advantageous, Underwood said, citing the proposal in 2003 to build a $650 million casino in south Sanford.
“There’s a reason why the developer picked this area. It’s not a secret this would be a prime location for some kind of tourist attraction project,” he said.
Underwood, who has many ideas for the theme park, said the theme could evolve based on the findings of the consultants. For now, he envisions a park with a theme that capitalizes on what Maine – and Sanford – has to offer.
He sees the possibilities as nearly endless: there might be camping, cabins or tree houses, outdoor activities or an indoor water park.
While the theme park is still in the idea phase, Underwood and Mapes said it has been generating interest around town.
“I’m saying a prayer (this will happen). We need to improve the economy of Sanford,” Mapes said. “The people, I hope, will come from miles around.”
Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at: