WESTBROOK – Business owner’s plan envisions a recreational park on the Presumpscot River.

WESTBROOK – Robert Mitchell describes himself as “an opportunist.”

And Mitchell, who owns HVAC Services, a construction company based in Westbrook, sees an opportunity for Westbrook that would allow the city to exploit a natural resource and also get an economic boost.

Taking advantage of the fact that federal regulators have mandated that Sappi Fine Paper begin construction of a fish passage at the Saccarappa Dam by 2014, Mitchell has proposed that instead of constructing a traditional fish ladder, the company construct a natural fish passage as part of a park that would open up the river to recreational use, allowing the fish to share the space with kayakers, canoeists and even swimmers.

However, Sappi has not shown any interest in the proposal so far.

Mitchell’s concept calls for a naturalistic stream to be cut through the small island that lies between Saccarappa Park and the Dana Warp Mill. The plan also calls for a bridge to be constructed to allow access to the island and the walking trails constructed on it. It also would open up access to the river from the land side through a small, terraced park, which would include a small beach.

“We’re just trying to get the dam operator, Sappi, to look at an alternative plan for (the fish passage),” Mitchell said.

Mitchell said he has an estimate of $3 million to construct the park, which he said is the same amount of money, or even slightly less, it will cost Sappi to construct the fish ladder that it plans to build there.

And the channel cut through the island for the fish passage and boat access would be unobtrusive, said Mitchell, adding that he believed it would need to be no more than 10- to 12-feet wide and approximately 1,000 feet long.

“It’s basically going to emulate a very small trout stream,” Mitchell said. “It’s not going to be like the Kennebec. This is going to be a passage for fish that is going to be gradually obstructed so it’s going to create varied flow. But for this to be a success for the city, it’s going to have to be a size to allow for someone in a canoe to (go through) and get downstream.”

Besides opening up the Presumpscot River for recreational use, Mitchell, who is an avid kayaker, said that the park would bring people to the city to enjoy the river and the surrounding park, and those people would spend money at the restaurants and other businesses on Main Street, giving a much-needed boost to the local economy.

The Presumpscot River is an underutilized resource, said Mitchell, who added that he almost never sees anyone on the river. He hopes that this park would change that.

“There’s no reason why this river shouldn’t be bustling with people,” Mitchell said. “We’ve just got to showcase it and people will come here.”

As for people who shy away from the river over fears of polluted water, Mitchell said that isn’t the case anymore.

“Most people in the area don’t realize how successful the river restoration was in this area,” he said. “The water cleanliness is very good, and I think a lot of people who have been here a long time might think of this as a place where you wouldn’t want to go into the water, but it’s not that way anymore. This is very clean water.”

Mitchell added that he plans on showcasing the river during Westbrook Together Days next month. He will be working with the Windham DARE program, where he is an instructor, to have kayakers on the river to allow people to see its potential.

Creating access to the river for boaters and people who just want to lounge by the bank and enjoy the scenery will lead to a boost in business, Mitchell said. Besides increasing demand for existing space along the river and the new park, he said, new businesses directly connected with the recreational use, like boat outfitters and kayak rental concessions, would follow.

“If you build this park, this will be an off-the-charts success,” he said. “It will get people to drive to Westbrook, not drive through Westbrook.”

The plan has gained some momentum as the Westbrook Environmental Improvement Corp., which includes city officials and local business owners, have endorsed the concept. The City Council’s Economic and Community Development Committee will be discussing it at a future meeting (the date of that meeting has not been scheduled).

At a City Council meeting on Monday, Mayor Colleen Hilton said she was in favor of looking into the idea.

“It’s a wonderful concept,” she said.

Drew Gattine, a member of the Westbrook Environmental Improvement Corp. board, said that he was “very happy” that the group has come out in favor of the park, adding that he can easily see how it could give the city’s economy a shot in the arm.

“I do like the buzz around this idea and I hope that buzz continues to grow,” Gattine said. “If it comes to fruition, it could be a real game-changer for our downtown.”

Councilor Victor Chau, who is also a member of the Westbrook Environmental Improvement Corp. board, said he, too, is intrigued by the prospect.

“It’s a great idea,” he said. “I’m really excited to get together with Sappi to see if it’s possible.”

“I’m really encouraged by this idea,” Chau added. “It will be an awesome place.”

But there is one monkey wrench in the works. So far Sappi has shown little to no interest in Mitchell’s plan for the park. On Tuesday, a Sappi spokeswoman responded to questions about the park by issuing a statement that said while the company does support recreational development, it doesn’t think this plan is doable.

“Sappi Fine Paper North America is aware of a proposal to create a water park for kayakers near the Saccarappa Dam in Westbrook; however, we do not believe the proposal is feasible given the complex regulatory environment governing hydroelectric stations,” the statement from the company said. “We are an advocate for recreational development and a supporter of ‘Sebago to the Sea Trail,’ a project that is being administered by the Presumpscot Regional Land Trust.”

The debate over fish passage on the Presumpscot River is a long one. In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld conditions in federal licenses that required Sappi to maintain fish passages at its dams on the river. But the decision left out one crucial piece. The Cumberland Mills dam, which is the first dam that fish would encounter, is not regulated by a federal license because it does not produce power. Therefore, the Supreme Court decision did not apply to that dam.

Sappi was not mandated to install fish passage at its other dams until one was built at Cumberland Mills. In 2007, Sappi agreed to remove the dam as part of a deal with several conservation groups. However, Sappi pulled out of the deal in 2008, and the groups – Friends of the Presumpscot River, American Rivers, the Maine Department of Marine Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – renewed their effort to get the state to force the company to provide fish passage.

The state ruled in 2009 that Sappi was required to build a fish passage at Cumberland Mills, and construction on the passage began last year.

The deadline for opening that fishway is May 2013. Sappi then must begin work on the Saccarappa Dam fishway, and Mitchell is hoping his idea for a park there gains traction before construction begins in 2014.

Mitchell said he is hoping that increased public interest in the project will convince the company to change its mind about the construction of the fish ladder, which he said would not do anything for the city.

“At the end of the day, that (fish ladder) does nothing for the local economy,” Mitchell said. “There is no benefit (to a fish ladder) until we restore fish (which could take years).”

In addition to boosting the local economy, Mitchell said his plan would also help the water quality in the river and would be a better choice for the fish that will be returning upstream.

“This type of fish passage creates a habitat and high-aerated water,” Mitchell said. “So it actually improves water quality and it is not strenuous for a fish. This type of a pass resembles a very natural free-flowing river that is more like the typical habitat that (the fish in the river) occupy.”

While any potential construction on the park is still at least two years off, Mitchell said, he wants to use that time to get more people on board and work to convince Sappi to change its mind.

“Portland doesn’t have this, they don’t even have the potential for this,” Mitchell said. “This is the diamond in the rough, all you have to do is polish it.”

Local  business owner Robert Mitchell stands at the top of Saccarappa Falls. Mitchell is hoping to convince Sappi Fine Paper to construct a natural fish passage in the area that would allow for recreational opportunities on the Presumpscot River and give the city a park that would provide an economic boost. (Photo by Rich Obrey)

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