WESTBROOK – Economic activity begins to heat up, but it still may be a while before the recovery is felt everywhere.

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Every time John Chase goes out to the site of Presumpscot Estates,

where excavation has started on his 40-unit housing subdivision,

people passing through stop to talk to him about buying one of the

lots.

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“We’ve been very pleased with the activity. We’ve got reservations

already in place,” said the chief executive officer of Chase Custom

Homes & Finance.

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The interest in buying lots at Presumpscot Estates, located off

Cumberland Street in Westbrook, is just one of several signs around

the city that a turnaround in the economy could be coming soon. A

local real estate broker says houses are being sold more quickly.

Business at an appliance shop on Bridgton Road has picked up

significantly since the winter. The Sappi paper mill is bringing

back some of its laid-off workers, and a Westbrook-based job

listing Web site reports an increase in new positions posted.

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“There’s a whole different attitude I’m seeing out there,” Chase

said.

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Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke last month declared the

country’s recession “likely over,” but, at the same time, cautioned

that the recovery from it was still a while away. And while that is

a feeling shared by people in some sectors locally, early

indications in other sectors suggest that the local economy is

headed in the right direction.

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According to Jason Blais, director of business development for

JobsInTheUS.com, the number of Cumberland County job openings

posted on the site jumped from 533 in June to 1,375 in August. The

4,800 job postings statewide in August were the most the company

had seen since September 2008.

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Started as JobsInME.com in 1999, the company, which is based in

Westbrook’s Dana Warp Mill, has since expanded its site to serve

several other states.

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“We saw an increase in every single county, which we think is a

really, really good sign,” Blais said.

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Though Blais believes some companies will still have layoffs as a

result of the recession, the good news is, he said, some others are

now hiring.

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One of those companies is Sappi Fine Paper, which laid off more

than 20 employees at its Westbrook mill earlier this year and shut

down machines for two weeks at a time due to a decrease in demand

for its products. But now, the paper company says it’s ready to

start beefing up its workforce again.

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“Near the end of this month, we will resume a seven-day-a-week

schedule to one of our coated operations. We’ve also begun to call

back some of our hourly employees that were laid off earlier this

year,” said Donna Cassese, the mill’s managing director.

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Cassese said demand for the company’s release paper has risen

recently because its customers’ inventories were depleted. Paper

manufactured in the Westbrook mills is used to give texture to

shoes, clothing and car interiors.

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Cassese credits the fall fashion cycle for some of the increase in

demand, but bumps in auto sales cannot be discounted.

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Much of those sales increases can be attributed to the federal

“Cash for Clunkers” program, which provided incentives for people

to purchase new fuel-efficient cars. But that program ended in the

last week of August, and Wally Camp Jr., owner of Rowe Ford and

Hyundai in Westbrook, said his sales for September are higher than

they were last year.

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“I don’t think it’s going to rebound to the level of sales in

2007,” he said, but he expects to see “a gradual improvement” in

the coming months. Camp estimated that his company’s sales were up

about 10 percent from September 2008.

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At LP Furniture and Appliance on Bridgton Road, owner Ryan LaPierre

also said that, after a harsh winter for sales, the past season

wasn’t as bad as he expected.

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“Early spring started out better than I thought it would, and it

really hasn’t slowed down,” he said, adding that his numbers are

still far from what they were in previous years.

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The sale of the new appliances at the store, such as stoves,

refrigerators and washing machines, is largely dependent on new

homes being built, LaPierre said.

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From being out in the field, Marie Flaherty, an associate broker

with Prudential Northeast Properties in Prides Corner, said she’s

seen new construction perk up recently and has clients who are

looking to build their own houses.

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“People are considering new construction and that’s a good sign,”

said Flaherty, but it’s not the only one that’s indicating things

are changing in the real estate market.

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In Westbrook, Flaherty said, the average home is spending 90 days

on the market – 17 days less than it had been in August 2008. And

the number of properties for sale in the city that are currently

under contract is up 13 percent from the same time last year.

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But the trends in the real estate market still haven’t affected

everyone involved. Local construction companies say that they’re

not optimistic about getting more work any time soon.

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“I wish I could tell you we couldn’t wait for the winter to come

and go, so we could get back to work in the spring, but everything

I know and sense tells me the opposite,” said Mike White, owner of

White Bros., a construction company on Warren Avenue.

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White Bros. laid off more than 40 employees in December, which was

a deeper cut than the company usually makes when work dies off in

the winter. And typically, White said, the company brings back most

or all of those laid-off workers in the spring. But this year,

nearly half of them were still out of jobs during the past

construction season. In addition, he said, those who are working

aren’t getting any overtime pay, which construction workers tend to

rely on for income.

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Though White Bros. is one of the companies involved with the

excavation at Presumpscot Estates, that project isn’t doing enough

to make White optimistic about the future. Danny Shaw, owner of

Shaw Bros. in Gorham, feels the same way.

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“We don’t see it getting any better next year,” he said.

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Though there have been government-funded projects happening –

projects that are being done at what White called “ridiculously low

costs” – it’s new residential and commercial projects that the

construction companies are lacking.

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“We need more private work,” said Shaw. “Nobody’s expanding.

Everybody’s on hold.”

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One large private project that would bring hundreds of temporary

construction jobs to the area is Stroudwater Place, the

$300-million, 1.65-million-square-foot high-end retail and

recreational development proposed for Stroudwater Street.

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But developer Jason Snyder said construction companies shouldn’t be

expecting to bid on the project any time soon. When a contract zone

for the project was approved by the City Council last December,

Snyder predicted he would be coming back to the city with a site

plan in less than a year and half.

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Plans to move forward with the first phase of the project are

already behind by nine months, Snyder said, and he expects the

progress to continue to be pushed back several more. Even though

the timing’s off, according to Snyder, the plans themselves haven’t

changed.

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“We’re holding course,” he said.

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According to the U.S. Census Bureau, retail sales in August were up

2.7 percent from the previous month. Though much of that increase

was in the auto industry, when broken down into different retail

categories, across-the-board sales are leveling out or showing

slight increases. From July 2008 to August 2008, in most

categories, there were much more drastic decreases in sales.

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These slight signs that things are changing may not be enough to

get a project like Snyder’s moving, but on a smaller scale the

difference is noticeable.

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During the economic downturn, one of the first places people cut

spending was on the little extra luxuries in life, including

expensive beauty treatments like facials and manicures. But people

still needed to get their hair trimmed, which led them to places

like Cosmotech, a cosmetology school on William Clarke Drive, where

they could do it on the cheap.

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“A lot of people were coming here because they didn’t want to pay

$60 for a haircut,” said Kelsey Collins, who attends the school,

where low-cost beauty treatments are performed by students as part

of their education.

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But Ilean Cavallaro, owner and director of Cosmotech, said the

school didn’t escape the effects of the recession. She said there

was a deep decline in enrollment for the school, which costs

$15,500 to attend. It was in July that she said more people started

signing up again. Now, there are about 35 students enrolled. In

better times, she has about 50.

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In addition, Cavallaro said she’s noticed more people buying

products, like shampoo, that are sold at the school, which

contributes to a sense she’s been getting about the economy on the

whole.

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“I think things have changed,” she said. “I feel a difference.”

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A White Bros. truck turns out of the construction site of Presumpscot Estates on Cumberland Street in Westbrook. Developer John Chase says there’s been a lot of interest in his 40-unit housing subdivision, which he believes is a sign of the changing economy. Mike White, owner of White Bros., however, isn’t so optimistic about the company picking up much more work in the coming year. (Staff photo by Leslie Bridgers)Kelsey Collins practices straightening the hair of Alex Hudspeth, her fellow student at Cosmotech, a cosmetology school in Westbrook. Ilean Cavallaro, owner and director of the school, says enrollment had dropped during the past year but has picked up again in the past couple of months. (Photo by Leslie Bridgers)


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