SACO — When developer Bernie Saulnier looks at the nearly 6 acres of undeveloped land on the east side of Saco Island, he sees an opportunity to add a unique destination to the re-energized mill districts straddling the Saco River.

Saulnier, who lives in Saco, is moving forward with plans for a roughly $40 million project that would include apartments, a boutique hotel, a restaurant, two marinas and a public riverfront path that could connect to the city’s river walk. City officials say the ambitious proposal has the potential to make a significant impact in the core of the downtown, but also have cautioned Saulnier to gather input from the community before submitting formal plans for consideration.

“I think we have one chance to make a great project where we can all sit back later and say this is unbelievable for the community,” Saulnier said.

Saulnier, who also is working on development plans in Portland, is in talks with the developer behind The Press Hotel in Portland about building the proposed hotel on Saco Island.

Much of the community reaction has been positive, but there are concerns about added traffic congestion along Main Street as it crosses the island.

Saco Island – also known as Factory Island – sits in the Saco River between the downtowns of Biddeford and Saco. It links both cities’ historic mill districts, where developers in the last decade have transformed former textile factories into housing and commercial and light industrial spaces.

In downtown Saco, much of that redevelopment activity in the past year has been focused on Mill 4, where Chinburg Properties recently opened 150 market-rate apartments in a renovated mill. Saco Island also includes condos, offices, Run of the Mill Public House and Brewery, Saco Island Deli and a transportation center that serves as a stop for the Amtrak train and local buses.

Saulnier’s Saco Island East project would add 80 to 90 residential units to the island, along with a boutique hotel with river views, a restaurant, recreation center, a park and two marinas. One marina would be private and used by apartment residents, but the other would be available for public use. Saulnier says it is possible that kayak rentals, boat trips and water taxis could operate from the island.

“As conceptualized, it’s a very significant project,” said economic development director William Mann. “It’s one of our gateways. Given the size and scale, it will get a lot of interest from the community.”

When Saulnier approached city officials this spring about his plans, they asked him to slow down the process and take time to talk to the community about the proposal before submitting formal plans to the planning board. The Saulnier Development team anticipates submitting formal plans to start the approval and permitting process by September with a goal of starting construction by the spring or summer of 2018.

“We want the city to be behind us,” Saulnier said.

Saulnier ran into opposition from residents on Munjoy Hill in Portland when he pitched a six-story condominium development. Residents pushed back because the building on Sheridan Street would obscure the view of Back Cove from a neighborhood park, and Saulnier agreed to reduce the height of the building.

The Portland City Council ultimately approved a new height overlay zone that prevents any new development from obstructing the panoramic view from Fort Sumner Park. In June, Saulnier submitted a revised plan for the Portland project that appears to meet the city’s new protections.

TIMING CALLED RIGHT

In the 19th century, the eastern side of Factory Island was the spot where raw materials and finished products were delivered and shipped via ocean-going vessels. Unlike the other half of Saco Island with its tall brick mill buildings, the eastern side was used primarily as a storage facility for raw materials and had a warehouse for coal storage. Today, a Central Maine Power substation sits on the otherwise undeveloped land.

Saulnier’s project is not the first plan that has been floated for the east side of Saco Island. Around 2006, a developer proposed building luxury condos and a marina, but that project fell apart during the recession. A 2015 proposal by developer Sam Zaitlin to build a four-story, 50,000-square-foot office building with river views never came to fruition.

With the redevelopment in the mills and downtown in the twin cities since then, Saulnier thinks the time is finally right for a project that would add to the vibrancy of the area. He said he was inspired in part by the activity he sees at Thompson’s Point in Portland, where there are concerts, a brewery, a distillery and other businesses.

But, Saulnier said, Saco Island has unique features: sweeping river views, close proximity to Portland, Kennebunkport and Boston, and easy walkability to two historic main streets.

That unique location is a potential draw for developer Jim Brady of The Press Hotel in Portland. Press Hotel general manager Michael Strejcek and Brandon Hussey, director of sales and marketing for the hotel, attended a meeting about the Saco Island East project last week and said the company has a “sincere interest” in developing a 50- to 60-room boutique hotel on Saco Island.

Hussey said they are still in the early planning stages, but an early market analysis shows the area could support an upscale hotel of that size because there is no other similar hotel in the area.

The hotel could market the area as a destination and could see an advantage from its proximity to the University of New England, Hussey said. The hotel management company also is exploring the idea of hosting wedding or other events on Saco Island.

TRAFFIC CONCERNS

At the community meeting about the project held last week at Thornton Academy, about 40 residents and city officials listened to a presentation about the project and asked questions of the engineer, architect, hotel team and Saulnier. A meeting a month earlier drew about a dozen residents, but city officials anticipate there could be stronger community participation once the formal planning board process begins.

During both meetings, Saulnier and his development team received mostly positive feedback about the idea, but residents said traffic will be a major issue if the project moves forward.

Saco Island is bisected on York Hill by Main Street. Traffic on the hill – which connects Biddeford and Saco – often backs up when Amtrak trains pull into the train station and blocks the railroad crossing for several minutes at a time. Those backups have caused increasing frustration and longer waits as more people live and work downtown.

Steve Bushey of the engineering firm Stantec, who is working with Saulnier, acknowledged that traffic will be a big issue as the project moves forward. The development team will consult with a traffic consultant who has worked extensively in Biddeford and Saco, he said.

City Councilor Kevin Roche, who attended the community meeting, said the city is in constant communication with Amtrak about moving the train up so that it doesn’t stop across the road. He also suggested the developer consider looking at either an elevated walkway or a path under the Main Street bridge to allow walkers to more easily access the other side of the island.

Donna Hinds, who lives on Saco Island, called the proposal “fantastic,” but questioned the impact it would have on traffic.

“I have a hard enough time getting out of there right now. I don’t know how we’re going to accommodate that much more traffic,” she said. “The traffic pattern is going to be horrendous.”

Glen Baker, a member of the economic development commission, called Saco Island a gateway for the city and pressed Saulnier on what kind of track record his development team has “for getting things done.”

Saulnier said he is backed by a company that will invest in the project. He also expects to work with other developers for the hotel, marinas and restaurant, but provided no other financial details.

“When you bring this to the city, you should lay out who will own what pieces very early in the process,” Mann, the economic development director, told Saulnier during the meeting.

Craig Pendleton, executive director of the Biddeford Saco Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said he sees the project as exciting, both from his point of view as chamber director and his background as a fisherman.

“I’m excited we could potentially have another marina down here. I imagine whale-watching boats and dinner cruises on the river,” he said. “All that potential is just waiting to happen.”

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

[email protected]

Twitter: grahamgillian