NORTH WINDHAM – The recent trifecta of eatery closures in North Windham is not dampening the spirits of area business people who say the closings are not an indication of a failing marketplace.

In the month of November, The Landing Restaurant, Basso’s Italian Market and Tim Hortons closed their doors. Basso’s closed for retirement reasons, says landlord Kathy Burns, owner of Windham Jewelry; and Tim Hortons and The Landing, both locally owned, closed for lack of sales.

But the trio of closures, while leaving conspicuously empty storefronts for passing motorists, doesn’t dampen the entrepreneurial spirits of local business leaders.

“I look at it in the bigger picture,” said Barbara Clark, executive director of the Sebago Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce. “We are between seasons, between summer and when the snow flies. It’s challenging this time of year. Businesses are telling me that, yes, it could be better, but it’s not all that bad.”

Tom Bartell, Windham’s economic development director, is saddened by the recent closures but believes that the North Windham economy is holding its own.

“We’re marketing the town. We’re trying to promote the town as a good place to do business,” Bartell said. “Government’s role is to make an environment conducive to business growth with minimal regulations, minimal expenses, minimal interference in the operation of businesses. That, and providing infrastructure for people to thrive. We have a ways to go in a lot of these areas, but we keep working on it. Windham will sell itself if it’s a good marketplace.”

Recently, Bartell noted, the town has enacted new zoning ordinances permitting outside sales in all commercial zones. This allows businesses to catch potential shoppers’ eye a little quicker.

On Tuesday night, the Windham Town Council discussed in a workshop a proposal to allow restaurants as a permitted use in all C-1 zones and also considered a proposal to reduce parking space dimensions, which would allow more parking for area businesses.

Larger, more publicized development efforts include an estimated $144 million proposal for a North Windham and Windham Center sewer, which proponents say would protect groundwater in addition to allowing for more development.

While those proposals may not take effect for months or years if at all, Larry Eliason, Windham Economic Development Corporation member and real estate broker with North Windham-based Butts Commercial Brokers, believes good things are happening in abundance now and is optimistic that the recent closures don’t reflect the many positives happening in town. He cites the following examples of business growth:

• 725 Roosevelt Trail next door to Amato’s was sold in April. The new owner, Eliason said, has completed extensive renovations to the building and has attracted new tenants and jobs to the property.

• The former Backpackers space (4,000 square feet) was leased this fall. The new operator renovated the space and has opened a daycare at the location.

• Jim Skvorak purchased 840 Roosevelt Trail and is in the process of renovating the building for his business, HomeStead Mortgage.

• Meyer Realty Investments, Inc. purchased a lot on Route 302 across from Enterprise Drive. The group has already done the site work, poured the foundation and paved the parking area. The development of a new 5,000-square-foot retail/professional office building is well under way.

• Tom Prossini built a 2,000-square-foot building adjacent to the Meyer Realty property and is still in the process of completing that space.

The Landing

But none of that good news in North Windham helps those who have recently closed, including Don Gordon, owner of The Landing and a resident of Raymond. The Landing, Gordon said, was a victim of high overhead and a sour economy.

North Windham has many dining options, including Charlie Beiggs, Thatcher’s, Stone Dog Cafe?, Applebee’s, Gilbert’s Chowderhouse and Club 302. The Landing Restaurant, situated near the buzzing intersection of routes 115 and 302, has been struggling for several years, Gordon said, ever since the recession took hold.

Gordon, who closed his doors Sunday, Nov. 21, said he hung on as long as he could, but high taxes, high rent, high heating costs and a clientele that tended to stick to the less expensive offerings combined to make running the business a doomed proposition.

“Out of money, it’s that simple,” Gordon said last Wednesday as he waited for vendors and other restaurateurs in the area to remove unused product from the shelves. “The cost to do business here had become too expensive as we continued to lose business and revenue. (Customers) are spending less. They all want the Happy Hour and the specials. They won’t eat unless dinner’s $10 or less anymore. They don’t want the expensive liquor. They want Miller and cheap stuff. They don’t have the money, and if they do, they aren’t spending it.”

Gordon had heavy expenses due to the restaurant’s size. When times were hopping, as they were before the recession hit, he made enough money, but $6,800 a month just to cover rent, taxes and utilities was too much to survive in these tighter times, he said.

Gordon, who chastised the Windham Town Council this summer as it considered and later passed a noise ordinance that requires local restaurants to buy sound level monitoring equipment and adhere to sound decibel levels, attempted to get town hall and his landlord to work with him, but no one budged he said, resulting in the closure.

“The noise ordinance is a symptom of the problems, but not in any way was that the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Gordon said. “Certainly the size of the building and the fact that town hall wouldn’t listen to me when I said I can’t pay (that high a level of) taxes anymore.”

Gordon said he paid more than $13,000 a year in local taxes alone. To prevent more closures, Gordon says something needs to be done on the local and state level to reduce regulations and taxes, which he said would allow businesses to start thriving and hiring again.

“I’d say the town is in serious trouble if they don’t start doing something,” Gordon said. “This little snowball effect isn’t over. There are other people I know for a fact that are right there with me that are ready to pull the plug because they’re not only not making money, they’re losing money.”

‘Holding our own’

Bartell says the town is moving fast to try to streamline regulations and promote the business district and he looks forward to the day when North Windham is back to full occupancy.

“It’s disappointing the market wasn’t there for these restaurants. I went to each of these businesses. We enjoyed having them around. But all we can do is try to make a better market … Our tax rate is reasonable compared to towns around us, so we’re doing what we can in that regard,” Bartell said. “But I do look forward to the day when I don’t have to say, ‘We’re holding our own.’ I’ve been using that phrase for two years now. I’m tired of using that.”

The phrase Clark has been hearing is similar, but maybe a little more positive.

“None of us have a crystal ball, it is what it is,” said the chamber director. “People are doing the best they can. But I remain upbeat. I’m seeing and hearing upbeat things. We have a new regime in Augusta, the governor’s office is getting more involved with the state Chamber of Commerce. And I’m not hearing as much negative feedback from business owners as I did last year. The fear factor was worse last year rather than this year.”

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