In recent years, upscale businesses have been moving to Route 1 in Scarborough, adding more diversity to one of Scarborough’s busiest commercial corridors that has long been dominated by fast food chains and motels.

Consumers can now buy luxury cars, designer jeans and fine wine and cheeses, in additon to cheese burgers and cheap rooms.

However, some have started questioning what’s happening on Route 1, with several key properties that have been left vacant for long periods of time, including the old Burger King at the intersection of Routes 1 and 114 and the Orion Center, which hasn’t been occupied in three and half years.

“I think people would like to see something in there,” said Lisa Onorato, Scarborough resident and owner of Katahdin Kids Toys on Route 1.

Those involved in economic development in Scarborough say that the vacancies are simply the result of the market, which doesn’t always move at the pace the public would like. They pointed to a new building with office and retail space that’s replacing the Moosehead Motel and the Little Dolphin School, which is opening Monday, as evidence that redevelopment is continuing along Route 1. And, the new businesses coming to Route 1 aren’t like the old ones.

Plans are in the works for the Orion Center and many other seemingly vacant lots on Route 1. However, the town’s planning board is not about to let just anyone move into its main corridor. Between being able to afford the rising price of property along Route 1 and meeting the requirements of the comprehensive plan, such as specific design standards for new buildings, opening a new business on Route 1 is a thorough and time-consuming process.

“Route 1’s property is going to be much more valuable,” said Planning Board Chairwoman Susan Auglis. “People who are marginal in what they do are going to have to leave.”

Harvey Rosenfeld, Scarborough Economic Development Corp. president, said that one of the ways in which that trend is already taking effect is with the decreasing number of motels and cottages, like the Moosehead Motel, that used to be “part of the fabric of Route 1.”

In between Oak Hill and Dunstan villages, dirt is already flying at the former Moosehead Motel. The site will soon be home to a two-story office building that Rosenfeld called a “beautiful building.”

The first floor will hold specialty retail stores and offices, and the second floor will be limited to offices only. According to Ken Hall, president of Maine Coast Properties, the realtor for the development, the 20,000-square-foot building will be broken up into units between 1,000 and 8,000 square feet, and developer Mike Richman, of Custom Concepts, will customize units to fit clients’ needs.

Hall said half of the first-floor space has been accounted for, and the building will be ready for occupancy by this fall.

A new name

It is not only the price of property that has changed the look of buildings, but also design standards, such as peaked roofs, cedar shingles and cupolas, that have been incorporated into the comprehensive plan in order to provide character and continuity to the facade of economic development in Scarborough.

Town Manager Ron Owens described the style created by the design standards as “colonial” and “New Englandy,” but, he said, “it’s not a quaint little community and you can’t make it one.” Owens said Scarborough was never the typical New England village because the prominent features of the town were two major roadways: Route 1 and 95. However, Owens still thinks the town could make one change to soften image of the highway that cuts through the town – he would like to give Route 1 a new name.

“It’s still one of those things I’ve been pushing,” he said. “The name of the road doesn’t go along with the image we’re trying to create.”

Owens suggested Post Road and Main Street – popular names for the route in other towns and states – as possible names for the Scarborough road. One problem with changing the name is that it would affect all of the businesses along Route 1, but Owens thinks that if given enough time, it wouldn’t be too much of a hassle. “I just think it would be something important for the town,” he said.

Mixing it up

One of the biggest question marks on Route 1 for residents is the vacant Orion Center, which hasn’t been occupied in more than three years.

Onorato opened Katahdin Kids Toys in October, and she would like to see more small, local businesses open up around her – places where people can meet and create a sense of community.

The Orion Center has the potential to be one of those places, but for now, Onorato said, “I think it’s kind of an eyesore.”

Anne Littlefield, general manager of Dead River Properties, which has owned the Orion Center since the mid-80s, said that the prolonged vacancy doesn’t mean a lot hasn’t been going on behind the scenes. After two years in the planning board process, the site has been approved for retail center Scarborough Village Square.

Rosenfeld said that 25 years ago, the site had been home to a retail center that “didn’t work well.” By revamping the exterior and adding walkways for pedestrians around Route 1, Littlefield thinks the project will be successful.

Littlefield said banks and restaurants have shown interest in the project. However, smaller tenants can’t join the project until an anchor tenant has established. A unnamed grocer that had been slated to sign on to the project elected to go on hold, which has left Littlefield looking for a new grocer to occupy the largest chunk of property on the lot, which will be a remodeled, 65,000 square foot building.

Though Littlefield hoped the process would have moved along more quickly, she is still excited about what’s to come. “It’s a great location,” she said.

A smaller strip mall on the South Portland side of Route 1 has been moving along in getting tenants in, up and running. The Little Dolphin Marketplace is already home to Entree Vous, a kitchen that assembles packages with everything needed to make a meal, and Jean Jungle, a store that sells designer denim. On Monday, the Little Dolphin School will open for business as a day-care facility for infants to kindergarteners.

Rosenfeld said that the strip mall went from being “very underutilized and unattractive” to “one of the nicest strip malls in the state.”

Architect Tim Braun said that it was necessary to put a little money into the project to give it a new look. “A lot of buildings, especially around Route 1, are in need of this,” he said. “They’re getting run down.”

The Little Dolphin Marketplace represents the wide range of businesses that provide everyday services to people in town.

“I think we have a really good mix of businesses,” Rosenfeld said, but he still hears one conistent complaint from Scarborough residents.

“I’m trying really hard to get local restaurants onto Route 1,” he said, “but it can’t happen overnight.”

Process and progress on Route 1 go hand in hand. Though there appear to be several buildings for lease or for sale, for most of them, projects are under way.

“For a community of this size, there aren’t a lot of vacancies,” Rosenfeld said. “You have to look beyond the signs. There’s a lot going on in Scarborough.”

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