BERWICK — James Bellissimo remembers growing up in Berwick and seeing Prime Tanning employees coming and going from their jobs at the region’s largest employer.

“It was a hub of activity,” says Bellissimo, who is now the town’s community development and planning technician.

The tannery that once employed hundreds of people has been shuttered for nearly a decade, leaving the center of town with little to draw people in. Now, the hulking industrial buildings that took up 11 acres in the middle of town are being torn down, and there is growing excitement around plans to carve out a downtown and bring new life to this small town on the New Hampshire border.

“Excitement is at an all-time high,” said Bellissimo, 28, who also chairs Envision Berwick, a community development organization that has helped form a townwide vision for the future of Berwick. “Being able to look at this as a complete blank slate to create a downtown from the ground up is a unique opportunity.”

This month, demolition and cleanup at the Prime property will wrap up and a private developer, Mark Kehaya of Florida-based The Fund of Jupiter LLC, will move forward with plans to redevelop the site with a mix of commercial buildings, housing and green space. Town leaders and residents see it as a monumental step for a town without a Main Street that has become a bedroom community for residents who work in Portland, Portsmouth and Boston.

Over the past five years, residents have filled out surveys, done community “charrettes” and attended meetings to help town leaders form a vision of a vibrant downtown Berwick that maintains the rural character of the community. Residents say they envision a downtown with lots of green space, unique small businesses, access to the river and activities that attract people of all ages.

“All Berwick has right now is a Subway and Cumberland Farms. Berwick does not have a downtown and there’s nothing that even mimics a downtown here,” Bellissimo said.

The owners of two new businesses are looking to tap into that vision and open in a building close to the former Prime Tanning property as it is redeveloped. The businesses – a brewery and art gallery – would add to a new, vibrant downtown, says Jamie Blood, a Berwick native who returned to Maine two years ago with plans to open Corner Point Brewing Co. with his brother-in-law, Jeff Tassinari.

“To be one of the first new businesses in there once this revitalization has gone into effect would mean the world to me,” Blood said. “To help change the perception of Berwick to residents and people outside the area is huge.”

TANNERY CLOSED IN 2008

Berwick, founded in 1713 and home to about 7,000 people, is nestled along the Salmon Falls River in western York County. A short bridge – newly improved in a collaboration between Maine and New Hampshire – separates Berwick from downtown Somersworth, a small city with a more defined Main Street. As in many towns in rural York County, residents tend to work and do their shopping in larger towns across the border.

The tannery opened in 1930, employing more than 600 people at its peak and building a reputation as one of the premier tanneries in New England. When the company announced in 2008 that it would close its leather-finishing operations in Berwick, 150 people lost their jobs.

After Prime Tanning closed and the company filed for bankruptcy, the buildings on the sprawling property fell into disrepair.

The closure of Prime prompted the town to explore ideas for the village center and, in late 2012, it started a process that included a townwide survey and public workshops. The Downtown Vision Committee that led the process produced a report and implementation plan that has been used by town leaders to guide revitalization efforts.

“Berwick has the opportunity to make one of the greatest turnarounds in U.S. history,” the committee wrote in its report. “The town can continue to carve its place as a bedroom community with rising tax rates or choose to invest in its people to become a small town others look to emulate.”

Envision Berwick, the community development group, was established in 2014 to continue downtown revitalization work and plan for the cleanup at the Prime Tanning property. The same year, the town entered into an agreement with Fund of Jupiter to take ownership of the 11.7-acre Prime property to allow the town to apply for federal environmental remediation grants. Private businesses are not eligible to apply for the funds.

Berwick has been awarded $1.2 million in brownfields grants from the Environmental Protection Agency, plus $200,000 in a supplemental grant from the Southern Maine Regional Planning and Development Commission to clean up the contaminated industrial site.

In recent weeks, crews removed piles of rubble from the Prime site, which is surrounded by a fence. Three buildings – including one with a community mural painted on one side – will remain and be developed. The iconic smokestack, with “Prime” running down it in white letters, stands for now, pending an assessment of the cost for the developer to maintain it as a landmark. When the cleanup phase is over, the town will transfer the property back to Fund of Jupiter to start the next phase of redevelopment.

After Prime Tanning closed in 2008, there wasn’t much to hold downtown Berwick together. But after demolition and cleanup of the site finishes this month a private developer from Florida plans to develop the area with shops, housing and green space. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

Bellissimo said Kehaya and the town are in talks about bringing a grocery store as a major commercial anchor for the property. It is likely the property will also include office space, housing and other businesses, he said, but final plans are still being developed and are subject to planning board approval.

In the meantime, the town is working on a round of ordinance updates in preparation of the redevelopment at Prime. The updates, which likely will go to Town Meeting in September, give the town the ability to enter a contract zone and set in place design standards that will cover how the Prime development looks and feels downtown.

If all goes well, construction on the Prime property could be underway by next summer, Bellissimo said.

NEEDS A BREWERY

Prime Tanning had just stopped operating when Blood, the brewery owner, left town to work in New Mexico.

“The tannery was running full shifts back then, so there were always guys out on the sidewalk smoking or talking. It was a more community-driven vibe and much more Small Town America,” he said.

Two years ago, Blood, now a stadium project manager for Hussey Seating, flew back to Maine for a job interview and was “heartbroken” to see what Berwick looked like with a rundown tannery in its center. But when he moved back to Maine with plans to open his brewery in a coastal town, he heard about Envision Berwick and the efforts to revitalize downtown. During the visioning process, residents said they wanted a brewery in town.

“At that moment, I looked at (my wife) and said, ‘I think I can open the brewery in Berwick,’ ” he said. “It’s not touristy and it’s not Portland and it’s not Portsmouth, but the people want it.”

Blood plans to open Cornerpoint Brewing and tap room in the first floor of One Sullivan Square, a historic building close to the river that has been used for a variety of purposes – from a laundromat to car dealership to church – in the past 100 years. Above the brewery, Berwick resident and artist Erin Thomas plans to open an art gallery with studios with her business partner, Liz McGranaghan, a photographer from Berwick who works in Boston.

As part of efforts to revitalize Berwick, Liz McGranaghan, left, and Erin Thomas are hoping to open an artist gallery on the second floor of this building at One Sullivan Square. Staff photo by Derek Davis

The owners of One Sullivan Square are awaiting final approval from the planning board to allow the building to be used by multiple businesses. A public hearing was held last week and a final vote is expected May 18.

Thomas, who has lived in Berwick for 17 years and started the Berwick Art Association in 2012, said she found in Berwick a large community of artists who have to leave town to conduct business. For the past few years, Thomas waited to find a space that would work for the MODspoke gallery and six artist studios before finding One Sullivan.

Thomas said she’s already heard from artists interested in renting studios, and she’s excited about the prospect of working in the town where she is raising her family.

“The first half of my life living here in Berwick was spent driving out of town,” she said. “For me, being able to work and live in the same community would be fantastic.”

Correction: This story was updated at 9:16 a.m. on May 7 to correct the spelling of Liz McGranaghan’s name.

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

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