When Rob and Samantha McNamee wanted to move out of Framingham, Massachusetts, they considered buying a house in another Boston suburb. Then they realized how little space their $300,000 new home budget would buy and redirected their search northward.
“Our money goes a lot farther in Maine than it does in Massachusetts,” said Rob McNamee, an engineer who can work remotely. They were able to build a three-bedroom, 2.5-bath colonial on a little more than an acre in Sebago Heights Estates in Windham while staying under their budget. They moved in on Valentine’s Day.
The couple looked at houses in Gorham and Raymond, but landed on Windham, where Samantha grew up. Rob needed easy access to the Portland International Jetport because he travels each month. Samantha, a software consultant who works mostly from home, needs to make the 40-minute drive to Falmouth periodically.
“There’s a nice balance of everything,” Rob McNamee said. “The schools are good, you are near national chains like Lowe’s, plus mom-and-pop stores. It’s a really nicely positioned gateway to the lakes, but I can still get to Portland and to the airport quickly.”
The McNamees are among the many people driving growth in Windham, where houses are being built faster than they have in a decade and the pace of new home construction is tops among the 41 communities that stretch from Lewiston-Auburn to York. In this town 15 miles west of Portland, 64 building permits for single-family homes were pulled in the first six months of this year – more than were issued in any full year since 2007, according to information collected by Construction Data New England.
“Builders are looking for land. Everybody’s jumping on it like vultures to build houses,” said Todd Harvey, a broker with Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate The Masiello Group in Windham. “It’s becoming a town of choice. People recognize it’s a great central location, with retail and services that you don’t have to go all the way to Portland for.”
Aside from Gorham, Windham gained more new residents since 2013 than any other town in Maine, according to population estimates from the U.S. Census. Windham’s population hit 17,443 last year, up 2.6 percent from 2010. Just three other towns gained 400 people or more in the same time span.
And the building activity hasn’t been limited to just residences. During the town’s last fiscal year, 300 building permits for commercial buildings and renovations were pulled, nearly double the number for the fiscal year ending in 2011.
A 58-room Microtel is scheduled to open in December. The Seacoast Fun Park and Snow Park is adding a restaurant, more water slides and snow-tubing runs. Auto Zone and Aroma Joe’s are building locations there. Smitty’s Cinema, which returned to Windham in 2013, added an eighth screen and 200 seats. Other small businesses, like Danielle’s Diner, and Bombshell Hair and Nails, are moving into spaces that have long sat vacant.
Director of Code Enforcement Heather McNally is receiving a flurry of calls from people asking about zoning and land-use criteria.
“It really is amazing seeing the life within the community,” McNally said.
To some extent, the factors driving Windham’s growth are the same as they’ve always been: a 30-minute commute to Portland, land that’s more available and affordable than in neighboring towns, easy access to the lakes, the mountains, St. Joseph’s College in Standish and the University of Southern Maine’s Gorham campus. In 2011, Bloomberg Business Week named North Windham as one of its Top 20 places to Raise Kids, lauded for its low crime and above-average schools.
Tom Bartell, executive director of the Windham Economic Development Corp., said the town has benefited from the growth of Portland-area businesses like WEX, Idexx and Unum.
“A lot of those professionals are working there and living here,” he said.
New residents can get more home for their money than they can in nearby towns. The average price of a newly built home, excluding land, in Windham is $168,891, according to data from Construction Data New England, a Windham-based firm. That compares to $217,800 in Naples, $179,278 in Standish and $172,286 in Gorham.
Among the wave of newcomers is Diane Durgin. When she and her husband were considering moving out of a condo in Windham, they checked out houses in Standish and Gorham. But the opportunity to have an acre of land, views of the White Mountains, the lakes and woodlands kept drawing her back to a building lot in Windham.
“We just kept coming back, and coming back and coming back,” said Durgin, who built a two-bedroom, 1.5 bath house in Sebago Heights Estates in 2012. “We wanted to be in a community, but we wanted the quiet and we didn’t want to be right on top of somebody else.”
Greg McCormack, one of the developers of Sebago Heights Estates, broke ground on the 91-home development in 2008, just before Wall Street giant Lehman Bros. collapsed and the national economy contracted. He continued building through the recession, albeit at a slower pace, doing three or four houses per year. This year he plans to build 10 units. He also started marketing the final phase of the development, which calls for 31 houses ranging in price from $200,000 to $300,000.
“People find that you’re going to pay 10 to 20 percent more for the same house in other nearby areas like Scarborough or Gorham,” he said. “People like the lake, and the fact that there’s an entire shopping district that you don’t have go to Portland to find.”
In response to its growing population, Windham officials are working to cultivate the town as a hub for the Sebago Lakes Region, and not just for tourists. The Sebago Lakes region drew about 313,334 overnight visitors and 236,578 day visitors in 2013, according to estimates from the Maine Office of Tourism. In 2012, the town commissioned a retail analysis to assess its consumer base and to attract retailers and service providers to the commercial district in North Windham. The intersection of U.S. routes 302 and 202 near Tractor Supply Co. store has 400 acres of commercially zoned property that’s suitable for retail and mixed-use development. Town officials have shared the results of the analysis with existing retailers to analyze their current product lines and markets.
But its reputation as a tourist destination has had a hand in its recent population and building surge. James Skvorak, senior mortgage adviser at Windham-based Homestead Mortgage Loans, said some of the new-home demand is coming from people who rented vacation homes for years and are now deciding to build a home of their own.
“I can only assume that consumers are more comfortable and have more confidence and job security, that they’re willing to make that investment,” he said.
He also noted that people are buying bigger houses than they have in the past. A few years ago, he was seeing ranches and colonials in the $190,000 range. Now he’s seeing them more in the $250,000 range.
“In the past six months, there’s been a big difference. It seems like new construction keeps springing up all over the place,” he said.
In January 2013, the city adopted a downtown plan to improve the capacity of Roosevelt Trail – Route 302, the main thoroughfare through Windham – to renew its sense of place and commercial center, increase access to open space, and spark economic development. Part of the plan calls for building more sidewalks and crosswalks, and connecting parking lots with more streets.
“We want to establish it as a service center for the lakes region in its own right, not just a bedroom community,” said Ben Smith, Windham’s planning director.
Officials point to the construction of a new Microtel on Route 302 as a sign that this is happening.
Beyond the jobs it will create – the hotel will employ roughly 20 people – “it gives local businesses that are bringing people to the region a place where they can stay so they don’t have to go to Portland or South Portland,” Bartell said.
It’s an indication that the business community has confidence that Windham’s economy chugs along all year long, not just during the May-to-October tourism season.
“It’s definitely a good sign,” said Aimee Senatore, executive director of the Sebago Lakes Chamber of Commerce. “They’ve done their research so clearly they see that there’s enough to keep you open year-round.”
Not everyone is glad to see the growth, though. Lifelong resident Marc Whitaker, who built a new home in Windham 10 years ago, commutes 45 minutes to his job at Arlberg Ski and Surf in Scarborough. His wife works in Gorham.
“The good part is that there are more people, and the bad part is that there are more people and more traffic,” he said. “But I’m five minutes from the water and the mountains, and I’m where I want to be on my days off.”
Web Producer Christian Milneil contributed to this report.
Jennifer Van Allen can be contacted at 791-6313 or at: