December 30, 2012

Biddeford says good-bye to Trashtown

With the MERC incinerator closing this week, Biddeford is feeling a new kind of energy.

By Gillian Graham
Staff Writer

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Biddeford Mayor Alan Casavant stands on Main Street in Biddeford on Friday. Casavant sees the closing of MERC this week as a turning point for the city after nearly three decades.

Photos by Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer

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People visit and look at art in Engine, an arts-driven nonprofit, during the monthly Biddeford ArtWalk along Main Street in Biddeford on Friday.

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In the 1950s, Lamontagne said, downtown was bustling with mill employees heading to work and people shopping in the department stores that anchored Main Street.

"You could get anything you wanted on Main Street," Lamontagne said. "It was a fine shopping community."

By the time he returned to town in 1965, Lamontagne saw things were starting to slow down on Main Street as larger department stores opened near Portland and the number of people working in the mills slowly decreased. The decline in downtown activity continued into the 1970s, when a horseshoe pit was set up on the stage of the once-vibrant City Theater. Then, in the early 1980s, Biddeford began courting MERC, competing with Saco for rights to locate the trash incinerator in the city.

MERC opened in 1987 in a downtown Lamontagne said many people had already given up on.

"That pretty much did Biddeford in," he said.

Casavant sat on the City Council that decided to bring MERC to the city. At the time, he said, burning trash was seen as a better option than a landfill. The city would benefit from more tax revenue and an arrangement to dispose of trash at a state-of-the-art facility. Plus, the downtown was in decline and there was a negative stigma attached to the mills, he said.

"It was viewed as an old industry and an old way of doing business. It captured so many people for so long. Today when we look at these mills we see them as agents of change. In the 1980s, they were weighted down with the baggage of the past," he said. "The idea of an incinerator going into space once housed by old mill buildings seemed like good economic development."

The departure of MERC isn't the only activity contributing to the downtown revitalization, Casavant said. He credits much of the change in attitude to people who have moved to and invested in Biddeford in the past decade. It was their enthusiasm that prompted him to run for mayor.

"People are coming here from away and bringing with them different expectations and different views of the city," Casavant said. "The people who moved here saw the glass as half full, they saw things that were not obvious to the people who lived here. They brought new vitality."

Lamontagne, recently named the downtown supporter of the year by the nonprofit Heart of Biddeford, believes the new energy downtown is "the only thing keeping it going." There are new artist studios, a monthly art walk, a variety of ethnic restaurants.

"If it wasn't for that, there would be nothing downtown," he said.

Tammy Ackerman, a downtown resident who runs Engine, a nonprofit that promotes arts and culture in the city, isn't surprised much of the energy in downtown Biddeford is centered on the arts. Urban renaissances are often led by artists who move into affordable areas and "make it cool," creating excitement and vitality downtown, she said.

"Whenever I'm out talking to people, specifically around the arts, they'll say 'I hear Biddeford is doing great things,"' she said. "Changing the perception (of Biddeford) is the key. There's a lot of attention focused on us right now. I think people are excited about a new era."

That excitement extends beyond people discovering Biddeford for the first time to residents who haven't been downtown in years, Ackerman said.

"It's nice when you get some of the old-timers who come down for events and they're excited," she said. "They remember Main Street packed with people on Friday and Saturday nights. It's never going to be exactly like that again, but it can certainly have some of those qualities."

Sanford, the owner of the Pepperell Mill Campus and other downtown properties, sees attitudes toward Biddeford shifting as people rediscover their pride in the city. Biddeford residents also are now seeing the mills as "great infrastructure that will allow us to attract more job creation."

"Other communities, the Portlands and Portsmouths of the world, would love to have this kind of infrastructure that can be developed for the 21st century," he said.

Lamontagne, the former city councilor, is encouraged by the renewed interest and investment in the city he loves. Biddeford, he said, "is well on its way."

"Biddeford is done going backward," he said. "It's moving forward."

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


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Additional Photos

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Visitors to dp Plourde Crafts look at glass wood art in the North Dam Mill during the monthly Biddeford ArtWalk on Friday. The ArtWalk, along with other art events, is helping to transform Biddeford into an arts community.

Tim Greenway

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Visual artist Nora Tyron works on a drawing in her studio in the North Dam Mill during the ArtWalk. In the foreground is a piece from a series titled “The Family Tree” created from wood, canvas, stone, and acrylic paint.

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Cheryl Lichwell with her art created from ceramics and surface treatments in her studio.

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Mixed media artist Roland Salazar Rose in his live/work studio apartment among his new work.


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