WESTBROOK – In the second of a two-part series, the connection between the future development of the Presumpscot River and the city of Westbrook itself is examined.

WESTBROOK – There are many ways to view the Presumpscot River in Westbrook. A lucky few get a chance to see it from the sky, looking down on the winding waterway below. Most are used to looking at it from the street. Possibly the best view is on the water itself, paddling between Cumberland Mills dam and Saccarappa Falls, passing through downtown virtually unnoticed.

Westbrook’s past, present and future run a parallel course with the Presumpscot River. The city was first settled by those looking for a good source of food and power, which they found in the natural falls. The city developed and grew through the efforts of the mill owners and their workers who made their living off river power.

But the industrial past created serious environmental damage still being addressed today. Proponents of future recreational projects believe cleaning up and restoring the Presumpscot will bring in more people and more business.

After years of viewing the river passively, the city is realizing the potential of improving the downtown to better utilize the waterway – but it all starts with the water and its past.

Many don’t think it can be used as anything more than a visual feature. Mayor Colleen Hilton said in her discussions with residents on potential river projects, she’s had people ask if they were even allowed to use the waterway, or if they had to get permission first.

Hilton said there are three phases for the future of the downtown she envisions. Phase 1 will be getting people to use the water in canoes, kayaks and by fishing. Phase 2 will be the efforts with Sappi Fine Paper to continue to move toward more natural usage of the Presumpscot, including fish passageways. The last phase would focus on redevelopment in the downtown.

“We’re hoping to realize some economic development, recreational use and getting people out there, just passively watching,” Hilton said.

Changing perceptions

When the Westbrook Historical Society held its grand re-opening at the Fred C. Wescott Building last year, Ellie Conant Saunders, the 93-year-old, lifelong Westbrook resident and relative of the first permanent settlers in the area, was presented with Presumpscot River champagne – a bottle of the water that runs past many businesses, homes and municipal buildings every day.

Saunders said she would never drink the water, but it was the sentiment of not forgetting where they came from that made the gesture special to her.

In the last decade, there has been a renewed effort to bring back the focus of what was once a central point for industry and community. The closing of many of the mills and the knowledge of how polluted the water was drove many away from the water banks.

“Certainly, for the last 10-15 years, we’ve sort of redirected our attention and our trying to very much make it a feature and display it prominently for better visual access, physical access and recreational use of the river,” said Jerre Bryant, city administrator.

Bill Baker, Westbrook’s assistant city administrator for business and community relations, said that despite many homes and numerous parks that lined the waterway, it was rare to actually see anyone utilizing it.

“I haven’t seen too much out there other than what I’ve personally organized. I feel pretty strongly that’s largely about access – there’s really no access point the public is aware of,” said Baker.

There is one public access point above the falls behind the skating rink, but Baker feels adding ramps and floats to the river in the future will increase its usage exponentially.

That might have to do with the general feeling toward the river. Many would never think of swimming in it or drinking from it.

“I never see anyone in the water. It’s just bizarre. And I’m not talking about swimming,” said Robert Mitchell, another avid kayaker, who also uses a remote-controlled drone to capture images of the Presumpscot from a bird’s-eye view.

Mitchell said despite cleanup efforts by such organizations as Friends of the Presumpscot and Friends of Sebago Lake, as well as outdoorsmen like himself and hikers who use the Sebago to the Sea trails, the mentality of locals is that the river is something to avoid.

“When I drive through Westbrook and really look at Westbrook, there are no racks on the cars, no canoe racks, no kayak racks,” Mitchell said. “We have, as a society, forgotten to appreciate the outdoors. We’re in Maine, we got this beautiful place, we’ve got to show the kids why Maine is special.”

According to Saunders, who never learned to swim, years ago, many children did go into the river by rope swings at Coconut Beach and in a swimming tank located inside the river itself.

In the years since Cornelia Warren, daughter of S.D. Warren, built the first swimming tank in 1905, efforts to clean up the river have taken place. Saunders said when she was younger, children often were covered in purple gentian violet to treat the bacteria from swimming in the river. Although the cleanup efforts have generated interest, it’s not enough to get people back into the water.

Members of Friends of the Presumpscot are in the forefront of the cleanup effort. So far, the group has been able to upgrade the river rating upstream, which means it will be more protected against pollutants – the higher the rating, the more protection. Westbrook’s water rating is a C, in a ranking system using, in descending order, AA, A, B, C and D.

The president of the group, Michael Shaughnessy, said while the group does not see the river becoming a theme park at any point, it does envision it being used more.

“Nothing says healthy community like someone fly fishing. You can float a boat on a polluted water, but no one wants to eat fish out of one,” he said.

Despite talk of adding more walking areas and expanding river uses, many say before recreation can really take off, the river needs to be cleaned of all the debris left at the bottom, like bicycles, car and manufacturing parts and shopping carts.

Local fisherman David Engel said when he stands on the banks and observes down below, he can see it’s a big mess at the bottom. He said it would take a herculean effort to clean it all up, but he feels with a little community effort, it can be done.

Engel said it could be possible with volunteers to remove much from the bottom, creating better habitat for the fish and showing the community that Westbrook is dedicated to a clean, healthy waterfront.

“The fish ladder and bringing in recreation is all well and good, but the river itself and terrain around it, it all needs to be cleaned up,” Engel said. “There’s a lot of debris, a lot of junk in the river.”

First project

Baker and Mitchell are hoping to change the perception that the river isn’t a viable place to enjoy with one of the first new projects on the Presumpscot, an already approved initiative for this spring. Three ramps and floats at different locations on both sides of the river will be installed for launching canoes and kayaks. City officials and proponents pushing the use of the river are hopeful they can team up with a company that will rent those canoes and kayaks out so everyone, even those without car racks, can try the fun.

“It’s the first concrete step in generally expanding access to the river,” Baker said.

The first one will be at the end of Ash Street and has a view of the Saccarappa Falls. The second floating ramp will be located near the back of Riverbank Park and will likely be the spot to rent kayaks and canoes. The third floating ramp will be across the street near the site of the community gardens.

“Putting one over there sends a positive message to the Brown Street community that they’re a part of Westbrook, as well,” Baker said.

Maria Dorn, director of Community Services, is working with Baker and others to create a partnership with a local company to rent canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards at the park.

“We’re still testing out what we want to do,” Dorn said. “We definitely want to do a kids kayak camp and teach the kids to go out and have fun, but use the water safely. We’re surrounded by a great body of water. We’re excited. We see this as a really great thing.”

Dorn said while she’s not a “river girl,” efforts to clean up the water and the opportunity to try something exciting and different may change her mind.

“It’s just another angle to come out about fitness,” she said. “It’s about recreation; it’s about spending time with your family. I think it’s a great thing.”

Teens at the Mission Possible Teen Center on Main Street agree.

“The only thing going on in Westbrook is Together Days,” said Sophie Sedjro, 12. “If you include the river, we could have water activities and games.”

Sedjro recommended charging a $5 fee or other nominal amount for renting the canoes and kayaks. Other teens suggested adding a place to swim, a bigger playground and even a duck feeder – again, with a nominal fee to help sustain the activities.

The problem is, many don’t even know that access to the river was even possible.

Mitchell thinks a kayak-canoe rental program could be the catalyst of the domino effect Baker seeks to start expansion and new development downtown. Mitchell said he was part of a similar effort in Colorado, when one community invested in its river and nearby cities and towns took notice of people pouring in to use the natural resource.

“It was a huge kick in the pants,” Mitchell said. “This is exactly the way it took off in Colorado. One did it and all the others said, ‘Wow, everyone’s going down there.’”

Many Maine communities, including Skowhegan, Biddeford, Sanford and Bangor, are looking at utilizing their waterways to bring in more visitors.

But Mitchell agrees with the teens that the rentals need to be affordable so people can get involved and stay involved. When people see the colorful crafts gliding along the water, more people will not only be intrigued to sit and watch, but also the more adventurous ones will want to try the sport.

Casting closer

Engel said as part of the efforts to add floats and docks to the Presumpscot banks, he hopes administrators will clear away debris and add more areas where fishermen can get down closer to the water to cast their lures.

Engel goes fishing on the river nearly every day when the weather permits. He sees about 10 other fishermen regularly in the area. Many people are wary of fishing, he said, or don’t know it’s available, and some people have a difficult time finding a spot to themselves that is clear of low-hanging branches.

“The most productive spot has been right after the falls on the rocks. I don’t want to say it’s a sure thing, but it’s pretty close,” Engel said.

Engel, who makes his own lures, has caught brown trout, big mouth and small mouth bass, yellow perch, white suckers, catfish, sunfish and fresh water eels. He said with a good cleaning and the addition of new vegetation, the river could support even more species, and maybe host a fishing tournament to spur even more recreation in the area.

“To see American shad and Atlantic salmon, to see those fish come back up the river to spawn, is something we haven’t seen here in 300 years,” he said.

Engel is optimistic that creating a natural fish passage is a good place to start. Sappi is building a fish ladder at Cumberland Mills dam, slated to be finished in May. The mill has until 2015 to complete a second fish passage, by way of ladder or by removing the dam above Saccarappa Falls entirely.

The dam removal was a victory for Shaughnessy and fellow Friends of Presumpscot member Dusti Faucher, who have been fighting against the dams since 1992. The fish passage, they hope, will allow for the return of a natural ecosystem that would create more recreational opportunities.

More changes

While the dams on the waterway are being worked on, there will be more signs of change – a new vehicular bridge and multi-use bridge. The new bridges will alter the traffic patterns in the downtown and allow pedestrians and bicyclists and undisturbed view of the water and nearby Saccarappa Falls as they stroll across the span.

The pedestrian bridge will piggyback onto a Maine Department of Transportation bridge project, which will move the span on Bridge Street toward the Bridge Street spur and leave the trusses of the old crossing to build the multi-use walkway.

The vehicular bridge will be built upstream, next to the Saccarappa Park, where the Bridge Street spur is now. Bridge Street will then become a narrower road leading to the pedestrian walkway across the Presumpscot River.

Bryant said during discussions with planners on the new multi-use bridge that designers were looking at historic photos of the bridge as a way to span the gap between the past and present.

The pedestrian bridge will be near the Frog & Turtle and Portland Pie restaurants, potentially offering opportunities like outdoor seating and improved views of the river. Changes to the downtown won’t be started until at least 2014, when the bridge construction is slated to take place.

While the bridge is being constructed, pedestrians would continue to use the Sebago to the Sea Trail to get around by foot. The trail, started in 2007 by Portland Trails and the city of Westbrook, links existing trails and made new ones, connecting Standish to Portland by way of Westbrook for those on foot.

According to Tania Neuschafer, project coordinator and manager of the trail system, there is still a 5-mile stretch waiting to be finished between South Windham and Westbrook. Hikers have the option of paddling down river starting at the Sappi canoe launch and ending on Lincoln Street in Westbrook.

“It’s a beautiful 5-mile paddle and you end on the connector trail. From there, there are signs to Westbrook downtown where you can stop and get a bit to eat,” Neuschafer said.

A portion of the trail system includes the Riverwalk in Westbrook. Molly Just, the city planner, is seeking a Community Development Block Grant to expand the boardwalk to include the north side of the river. According to Baker, there is potential to collaborate with Sappi on the expansion of the already popular walkway onto the opposite side of the street, giving pedestrians and bikers a better view of the riverbanks and easier access around town.

Rose Marie Russell, who walks her dog Tess on the Riverwalk, says a lack of trash cans have left the area looking disheveled.

“It’s a delightful place over there. Keeping it clean, that’s the biggest thing,” she said.

Many residents do see the potential for making the river a new center of the city. For every resident, administrator and organization that’s interested in the current projects, there are even grander ideas.

The river once housed a theme park on its banks, the Riverton Trolley Park, years ago. The trolley park, on the Portland/Westbrook town line, brought people from all over New England to ride on its roller coaster, see a live show and rent canoes.

Kayakers like Mitchell and Baker would like to see some additions, including more rapids to create a better space for kayakers looking for the whitewater thrill. Mitchell pitched the idea for a water park in 2011 that could mean anything from tubing to kayaking to whitewater rafting. Unfortunately, Sappi was not open to discussions of adding a water feature at that time.

Mitchell has hope that now, with the potential removal of the dams, Sappi and the city will be willing to discuss the water park again.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done,” Mitchell said. “We’re not really asking to spend much more money on additional features for fishing, paddling and recreation. You dig here and dig a little over there, too.”

Local teens at the Mission Possible center suggested a space for swimming and a dock they could lay out on in between the banks. Engel said a fishing competition could draw attention, as well.

The city is taking its time, planning out one project before moving ahead to another.

“I would say we’re not wasting our time on pipe dreams,” Baker said. “The things we’re talking about, those have an 80 percent chance or better of happening.”

The Presumpscot, said Bryant, “is a crucial feature for the downtown. It’s a major identifying piece as we move forward with economic changes. It’s a huge identity historically, and we’re trying to make it for the present and certainly for the future.”

An aerial view of two kayakers on the Presumpscot River near Saccarappa Falls last week shows the size of the falls and suggests the potential for more activity on the water. It’s a goal that city officials and others are pursuing. Courtesy photo

Kayaker Bill Baker nears the final turn of a paddle last week down the Presumpscot River with American Journal reporter Suzanne Hodgson. Staff photo by Suzanne Hodgson

“The river and the terrain around it all need to be cleaned up. There’s a lot of debris,” says David Engel, a Westbrook fisherman who tries his luck on the Presumpscot every chance he can. Photo by Rich Obrey

Watch from above as American Journal reporter Suzanne Hodgson and Bill Baker, assistant city manager of Westbrook, paddle down the Presumpscot River.

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