Scarborough Downs with horse barns in foreground, in 2001. File photo/Gordon Chibroski,

SCARBOROUGH — Scarborough Downs, the struggling center of Maine’s harness racing industry, is under contract to be purchased by a Massachusetts developer who specializes in distressed properties and mixed-use projects.

Thom Powers of Cohasset is leading a group of investors from the Boston area and Maine who are interested in redeveloping the 483-acre tract in the center of town for residential, commercial and recreational uses.

Though Scarborough Downs has been for sale for years, and other developers have shown interest, this is the first time the owners have signed a purchase agreement to sell the entire property, said Mike Sweeney, spokesman for the Downs.

Powers said he’d like to keep the racetrack operating if he can make the numbers work, but he has no interest in trying to develop a casino there. Several legislative and referendum efforts to get slot machines and game tables at the Downs have failed.

“We are not chasing the whole casino angle,” Powers said by phone Friday. “That has been the Achilles’ heel historically.”

The property was listed for $7.5 million. Powers declined to say what he has agreed to pay for it.

Stretching from Route 1 to Payne Road, near Exit 42 of the Maine Turnpike, Scarborough Downs is owned by Sharon Terry, widow of former owner Joe Ricci, and operated by her daughter Denise Terry.

When the Terrys decided last fall to sell the entire property, Denise Terry told the Press Herald that the racetrack was being snuffed out by dwindling profits and attendance, increasing competition from casinos and online gambling, crumbling facilities that have drawn recent scrutiny from government officials, and continuing controversy with horse owners and trainers.

“I feel like I’m being held underwater,” she said in November. “How long can you survive without breathing?”

DOING DUE DILIGENCE

Powers formed Scarborough Downs Development LLC in Maine in January and signed the purchase agreement on March 1. He’s been living here weekdays while he does the due diligence necessary to complete the purchase. He has met with city officials and local residents to assess the property’s potential.

“It’s a big deal and it’s complicated and we’re just getting started,” Powers said. “We’re very interested by it, but it’s too preliminary to talk about it in much detail at this point.”

Drivers pick up the pace at the start of a harness race at Scarborough Downs in 2016. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

Town Manager Tom Hall said Powers has met with him and several other town officials to learn about the planned development zone that the town passed for the Downs property in 2013. The special zoning allows a wide variety of private and municipal uses in the hope of creating a village center in a town that doesn’t have one. It also requires the developer to submit a master plan for town approval.

“It’s very exciting to have the entire property under contract rather than see it developed piecemeal,” Hall said Friday. “I do get the sense that something is different about this developer.”

Powers’ company, Powers Realty, Development & Consulting, is an independent firm that specializes in distressed asset recovery, acquisition, construction and property management.

His projects include Old Colony Square at Cohasset Station, a mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly property that was developed in 2010 beside a new rail station about 20 miles south of Boston. The $15 million project featuring 16 luxury apartments above 32,000 square feet of first-floor retail space incorporated design elements of a New England main street.

“This is really the sort of thing Thom Powers does,” Powers said.

RACING SEASON STARTS

Powers acknowledged that the Downs property could meet a variety of needs for the wider community, including housing and recreation. He also noted that about a quarter of the parcel is wetlands, and the racetrack, grandstand, horse barns and other facilities are suffering from “functional obsolescence and deferred maintenance.”

Foot traffic is light in the lower grandstand at Scarborough Downs during a live racing card in November. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

“It’s the center of the town and it’s been neglected for a long while,” Powers said. Keeping the racetrack going likely would require a significant investment in capital improvements, he said.

Tim Powers, who is president of the Maine Harness Horsemen’s Association and no relation to the developer, told WCSH6-TV Friday that he hopes racing will continue at the track, but he said group members are making contingency plans in case it doesn’t.

Sweeney, the Downs’ spokesman, said the owners also hope Powers will maintain the racetrack, which opens for the 2017 season Saturday. It will host eight races each Saturday and Sunday through the first week in December, with a 1:30 p.m. post time each day.

“Our focus will continue to be on live harness racing,” Sweeney said.

Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

[email protected]