Westbrook’s economic summit will be held Friday, from 8 a.m. to noon, at One Riverfront Plaza; and again on Saturday, from 8 a.m. to noon, at the Westbrook-Warren Congregational Church for those unable to attend on Friday.

It is open to the public.

Westbrook is hoping that an economic summit on Friday will bring together Westbrook residents and business people behind a unified, long-term goal for economic development in the city.

The summit will focus on assessing how the city is encouraging development and establishing goals for development over the next three, five and 10 years. The administration would like to see economic summits and cooperative economic development planning a regular fixture in Westbrook as the city continues its transition from a mill town to small city.

According to Erik Carson, Westbrook’s economic and community development director, the most important achievement to be gained at the summit would be to bring the community together behind a single, clearly defined goal for the future.

Since the downsizing of Sappi Fine Paper throughout the 1990s, Westbrook has worked to bring in new businesses to replace the mill, in particular professional businesses. The city has seen a dramatic change in both its economic and physical landscape.

When the mill was a more significant part of Westbrook’s economy, Sappi employed more than 3,000 employees and accounted for 40 percent of the city’s business tax base. Today, Sappi accounts for only 4 percent of the business tax base and, as a result, the city has had to actively campaign to attract new businesses.

“It was a very challenging time for the city,” Don Esty, mayor of Westbrook from 1998 to 2003, said of the downsizing of the mill. “We were either going to go forward as a community or fall behind.”

A fateful transition

Esty said his administration was acutely aware that many industrial towns in New England had gone through a similar transition and not recovered. He said because the mill had been downsizing for years, his predecessor, Ken Lefebvre, had already begun to aggressively attract businesses to Westbrook to conterract its continued shrinking.

While economic growth had begun prior to the pulp mill closing at the end of the 1990s, that event coincided with the beginning of a period of significant growth for Westbrook’s business sector, ushering out a dependence on industry and bringing in a focus on emerging technologies, along with the establishment of a new tax base.

The closing of the pulp mill marked the disappearance of the smell associated with the mill and the stigma attached to Westbrook as a mill town, making it a more attractive place to work and live. In concert with that were low interest rates and property values in Westbrook, which Esty said created a window of opportunity and helped the city bring more businesses in.

Substantial downtown improvements followed, including the revitalization of the riverfront with a walkway along its length, as well as the renovation of the Dana Warp Mill by Flannery Properties and the development of One Riverfront Plaza, with its accompanying parking garage.

The renovation of the Dana Warp Mill, in particular, was a boon for the city, serving as a business incubator for companies such as JobsInTheUS.com, an Internet-based job search company, and the Bakery Photographic Collective, a photographer studio and gallery. The development of One Riverfront Plaza brought Disability RMS – and more than 350 employees – to Westbrook.

The city would see the arrival of Hannaford, Cinemagic Stadium Theaters and several restaurants including Chicky’s Fine Diner, Burrito and Rookies, which was replaced by another restaurant, Fajita Grill. The coming of restaurants is indicative of a growing economy and a population willing to spend disposable income on entertainment, according to Carson. The presence of artists, such as the Bakery Photographic Collective, was another indication of Westbrook’s growth as a community, said Carson.

In all, the city has seen almost $350 million in development since 1998 alone, according to Carson. Some $100 million of that will come from Idexx over the next 20 years. With that $350 million in development came about 1,800 new jobs and 1.2 million square feet of new space.

What changes bring

New businesses have had to make up for the nearly 36 percent drop in tax revenue caused by the mill shrinkage. At the same time, property values in the city have risen with the arrival of so many new businesses.

“The difference is night and day,” said City Councilor Ed Symbol, owner of Full Court Press, a printing company that opened on Main Street in 1998.

According to Symbol, Westbrook had to “shop itself” in 1998 to get companies to come, but over the years that has changed. The city has seen an influx of companies seeking lower property values or rent. Renovations and improvements to existing buildings have made the city nicer and, as a result, more expensive, he said. While Symbol believes rents in Westbrook are still lower than in many surrounding towns, he said he’s seen his go up by about $8 per square foot since he opened. In fact, he said, his lease ends at the end of the year, and he’s not sure if he’ll be able to afford to stay in Westbrook.

“Certainly property values have gone up. Leases have gone up,” said Symbol.

According to many, those increases will only continue as Westbrook attracts more businesses and renovates more of its existing industrial space.

Joyce Talbot of local developer T&T Development said she thinks Westbrook’s growth is just beginning. T&T Development is responsible for the redevelopment of the Edwards Block on Main Street where Portland Pie Company now operates and Sebago Commons in the old Sebago Shoe building on William Clarke Drive, which houses the Cosmotech School of Cosmotology.

“We’re still in the infancy stage of growing,” said Talbot. “There’s a lot of potential for growth and expansion.”

Agreeing with Talbot is Nancy Forrester of Biscaye Consultants, the Old Orchard Beach-based firm the city hired to conduct an independent survey of Westbrook community and business leaders in preparation for this week’s summit.

Forrester believes Westbrook has big potential, a view that changed during the course of conducting the survey. Before the survey, Forrester said, she thought of Westbrook as a former mill town, but now she sees it as a “jewel” of southern Maine.

“I just think now it’s head and shoulders above what it was,” said Forrester this week.

What’s ahead for Westbrook

For the city, the summit represents a chance to explore ideas for the future with residents and community and business leaders. In her survey, Forrester said she received many thoughtful comments from the people she talked with, which she said would form the basis for the topics of discussion at the summit.

While she declined to discuss those comments, she said many of them were positive about the direction Westbrook has gone in since the mill downsizing.

“There was a great sense of appreciation for what has happened in the last 10 years and a lot of positive thought,” she said.

She said many people would like to see the trends established in the last eight years continue.

For the future, the city will focus on attracting emerging technology companies, like Idexx, a biotech firm planning to invest more than $100 million in facilities expansions and bringing 500 new employees over the next 20 years. The city will also continue to attract small business, particularly to the downtown, according to Carson.

Toward that end, the focus is on bringing together key people in Westbrook to work together to achieve a common goal. According to Esty, that was an important focus when the mill closed, and is still is.

“If you don’t bring everyone together, who wants to go forward and take a chance?” Esty said.

According to David Mitchell, Disability RMS vice president, that collaboration among the various entities in the city – administration, city council, planning board, all working as a unit – was crucial to his company’s decision to locate in Westbrook

“Other communities had entities working separately,” said Mitchell.

Beyond that, Joyce said it would be important for the city to continue to market itself, a point raised by many at the 2005 summit. “The city should have a solid, attractive marketing plan,” she said.

Information gathered at the 2005 summit suggested that the city would need to do several things to continue attracting new businesses. It would need to establish a skilled employee base for emerging technology businesses through education in the school system. The city would also need to make it easy for small businesses to thrive in Westbrook and also encourage businesses to locate in the downtown.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: