September 19, 2013

Westbrook dreams big on downtown rebirth

By J. Craig Anderson canderson@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Westbrook officials say they have a grand plan to bring thousands of new jobs to the city by redeveloping a once-vibrant manufacturing corridor along the Presumpscot River.

click image to enlarge

Mayor Colleen Hilton and William Baker, assistant city administrator, talk Tuesday about the economic future of Westbrook, especially the potential removal of the Sappi dam on the Presumpscot River, while standing in Saccarappa Park.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Westbrook hopes to obtain Sappi Ltd.’s hydroelectric dam, above, then remove it to create a waterfront and recreation area.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

The city is in discussions with downtown employer Sappi Ltd. about transferring ownership of the company's hydroelectric dam to the city and removing it to create a new commercial waterfront and aquatic recreation area.

If things go as planned, the redevelopment project could commence as early as 2015, city officials said.

The proposed project is part of a broader effort by Westbrook's municipal leaders to trigger an economic rebirth in the former manufacturing hub.

The downtown area has lost thousands of manufacturing jobs over the past two decades. Before South Africa-based Sappi purchased the S.D. Warren Paper Mill in 1995, the facility employed roughly 3,000 people. About 300 workers remain.

Westbrook leaders envision a transformed downtown teeming with offices, hotels, shops and restaurants drawn to the city for its business-friendly policies, relatively inexpensive real estate and local amenities.

One of those amenities would be a Presumpscot River recreation area with whitewater rafting and kayaking over the Saccarappa Falls, and an artificial wave pool below the falls that visitors could access via a pedestrian bridge, they said.

It's an ambitious goal that is many steps away from being achieved, but University of Southern Maine economist Charles Colgan said an analysis of 1,200 records of commercial properties, matched with employment records in Maine, indicates Westbrook could more than double its downtown employment base.

"The downtown area is well positioned geographically and in terms of space to take advantage of those industries most likely to add significant numbers of new jobs in the Portland area and in Maine," said Colgan, of USM's Maine Center for Business and Economic Research. He completed an economic impact study in August on the proposed redevelopment.

In his report, Colgan said estimating the number of jobs that could be created within a given area is an inexact science, but that Westbrook's downtown employment base could expand from the current 2,000 jobs to between 3,000 and 5,000 jobs, making it one of the major employment centers in southern Maine.

But three factors will determine whether downtown Westbrook can transform itself from an area that's "economically adrift," Colgan said: Maine's overall economy must grow. Westbrook must capture a significant share of that growth. And the city's public and private entities must invest in revitalization.

The first factor is largely beyond the city's control. Since the state's economy bottomed out in mid-2009, recovery has been slow, he said, lagging behind that of the nation.

"Through the second quarter of 2013, the Maine economy had grown by 8,000 jobs compared with the depth of the recession in 2009," Colgan's report said. "This is less than 30 percent of the jobs lost during the recession and compares unfavorably with the U.S., which has recovered more than half of the jobs lost."

Westbrook Mayor Colleen Hilton said what officials can control is the city's reputation as an attractive place for businesses.

That means reaching out to potential employers, making them aware of Westbrook's positive qualities, promoting it as a business-friendly city, and having a responsive local government that is quick to process and approve necessary licenses and permits, she said.

Hilton said the city already has come a long way toward repositioning itself as a growing employment center.

"Westbrook has really adapted," she said. "I think it's pretty amazing."

The city is home to Idexx Laboratories Inc., one of Westbrook's largest and fastest-growing employers, which recently completed a $35 million, 108,000-square-foot expansion of its headquarters facility.

Bangor-based Husson University has purchased a 34,000-square-foot building in Westbrook and plans to relocate from its South Portland location in early 2014.

Still, it would take a lot more job growth to make up for the city's losses in manufacturing employment.

Hilton said city officials will have to take better advantage of downtown features such as the Presumpscot and reintroduce people to an area they may not have visited since its purpose was primarily industrial.

"When the (paper) mill was operating, there was quite a stench, if you will," she said. "That's been long gone."

John Murphy, president of the Westbrook-based Maine Credit Union League, said the city has proven to be a good place for the organization and its 150 employees because of the relatively low cost and business-friendly government.

He commended Assistant City Administrator William Baker, who is in charge of economic development, for asking local business leaders regularly for their input on city planning issues.

"Bill Baker has been a great liaison between our organization and the city of Westbrook," Murphy said.

If there's a downside to the area, it's the lack of restaurants, Murphy said.

"Our employees would like to see more options for lunch," he said.

J. Craig Anderson can be contacted at 791-6390 or at:

canderson@pressherald.com Twitter: @jcraiganderson

 

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