BIDDEFORD — Four years ago, Doug Sanford would walk through the Pepperell Mill, his voice echoing through the cavernous rooms left empty when a blanket manufacturer headed south for cheaper labor.

Now, his voice – and the excitement it contains whenever he talks about the city’s revitalization – can barely be heard over the buzzing and clanking of tools workers are using to transform the space for a new era.

“I think that finally, the perception of Saco-Biddeford is changing,” Sanford said. “Biddeford is finally getting the run it deserves.”

Sanford, owner of the sprawling brick mill complex that sits in the heart of downtown, is the driving force behind the Pepperell Center. The largest mixed-use development project in York County, it sits in the middle of a downtown that is being revitalized as other business owners open stores and restaurants, clean up historic structures and build housing in former mill buildings.

The 180,000-square-foot Pepperell Center, housed in the former Building 13 of the complex, is being transformed into a home for a variety of businesses and a portal for Main Street pedestrians to enter the campus, Sanford said.

Portland Pie Co. will open a 130-seat restaurant in the space, the first restaurant in the center. Other tenants include Impact Fitness, Saco River Dyehouse, Hyperlite Mountain Gear, Banded Horn Brewing Co., Maine Pie Co., Consumer Real Estate Finance Co., Hands Free Vehicle Technologies and clothing company Angelrox. A distillery is expected to open next to the brewery this fall.

Sanford has invested about $3 million in the Pepperell Center and anticipates a total investment of $10 million over the next two years. The new storefront will be done by the end of the year.

It was back in 1982 that Sanford bought his first property, the old Woolworth’s block, in downtown Biddeford. The textile mills were still running then, but the downtown area already was on the decline as jobs were increasingly being shipped overseas. City officials put a trash incinerator in the middle of downtown, a sign that the area was being written off.

“No one wanted to be in Biddeford then,” Sanford said. “People would ask me if I was crazy.”

Fast-forward 32 years.

Those old textile manufacturing companies and that Maine Energy Recovery Co. trash incinerator are gone, slowly being replaced by small businesses and a growing excitement in a reviving downtown. Many of the new businesses, including light manufacturing, are moving into the mills where workers once churned out textiles that were shipped around the world.

And Sanford now owns 1.1 million square feet of mill space. He bought his first mill, North Dam, in 2004 and the former Pepperell Mills in 2010.

“Did I ever imagine this? No,” Sanford said, standing outside the Pepperell Center, just across the street from one of the first buildings he bought here. “We had some obstacles. MERC (the trash incinerator) was a big one. It made it a really tough sell to any real job creation or folks who would invest in this community.”

Sanford isn’t having trouble attracting tenants now. North Dam has 81 residential units, with 20 new apartments planned in the former dye house. The apartments are all occupied and there is a waiting list.

The value of North Dam Mill has increased from $2.12 million in 2004 to $9.4 million now, according to city assessor Frank Yattaw. The rest of the campus is assessed at $1.7 million, but that will increase as the space is renovated.

The entire Pepperell Mill Campus includes 100 businesses, ranging from dance studios to a gaming lounge to clothing manufacturing. Sanford estimates around 200 jobs have been created, with more to come as Portland Pie Co. and Angelrox move into the complex and add employees.

All of that activity will become more visible to the public in the next few months as the facade of Building 13, at the corner of Main and Alfred streets, is transformed into the glass storefront of the Pepperell Center.

“It’s really going to change the face of this high-exposure corner,” Sanford said.

AN INCUBATOR OF SORTS

Daniel Stevenson, the city’s economic development director, said projects like the Pepperell Center are positive for the city, though Biddeford has not done a study to evaluate its economic impact.

“As (Sanford) and others continue to invest in their properties and continue to fill spaces, it’s great for the economy,” he said. “Not only does it create jobs and increase the tax base, the types of businesses that are coming in are bringing people. We’re becoming more destination-oriented.”

Hyperlite Mountain Gear, which manufactures ultra-light outdoor equipment, started in 2009 in a garage in Kennebunk, but soon moved into the North Dam Mill. After outgrowing its 4,000 square feet of manufacturing space this year, the company moved into the Pepperell Center and away from the residential side of the complex.

The new 7,500-square-foot space will allow the company to continue to expand and to add new jobs, said Mike St. Pierre, founder and CEO. He anticipates the company will move into an even larger space on the campus in 18 months. As appealing as the larger space was, St. Pierre said part of the draw is the community being created in the Pepperell Center.

“It’s almost like a small-business incubator, but not quite as formal,” he said. “It’s a very Bohemian work environment. It’s a real melting pot of a lot of different startups. We can share ideas, chat and share resources.”

Roxi Suger, owner of the downtown shop Suger and the Angelrox clothing line, is in the process of moving production into a 5,000-square-foot space down the hall from Hyperlite. She plans to hire two or three more employees immediately, then more as her business continues to expand. She sells clothes in 200 boutiques across the U.S.

Suger moved her business to Biddeford from Brooklyn, New York, last year. The mixed use of the mills was the biggest draw, she said.

“We knew there was this rich history of textiles and thousands of square feet of mill buildings we can expand into,” she said. “We believe (mixed-use) is the future of all these spaces. It takes this fusion of entrepreneurial spirit to make that happen.”

Darren Case, a Kennebunkport native, plans to open a distillery in the Pepperell Center this fall. Because the mills allow light industry, he’ll be able to open downtown, not be relegated to the edge of the city, as he likely would have been in Portland, he said.

“It’s exciting to be part of such a vibrant, diverse and rapidly growing business community like Biddeford,” Case said. “I’ve found that in Biddeford and Saco, in general, there is a really great support network to help small businesses get started. It feels almost like joining a family.”

Case, who is in the process of moving back to Maine from Brooklyn, has watched closely over the past few years as new businesses have moved into the city. He believes some people may be unaware of how much is happening within the mill district, but that the Pepperell Center will make it more obvious to passersby.

“Because so much of the growth is within those big brick buildings, it’s not readily visible from Main Street. It’s deceptive how many businesses are within that community,” he said. “It’s been exciting to watch it grow. It’s even more exciting to actually become a part of it.”