Above: The first floor of the Lincoln Mill in Biddeford, which is being developed into a large hotel and apartment complex, is pictured in this Aug. 8 file photo. Right: Roxi Suger, right, and her husband Julian Schlaver are pictured Wednesday in Biddeford. Suger and Schlaver moved the headquarters of their clothing line, Angelrox, from New York to Biddeford in 2013.

Above: The first floor of the Lincoln Mill in Biddeford, which is being developed into a large hotel and apartment complex, is pictured in this Aug. 8 file photo. Right: Roxi Suger, right, and her husband Julian Schlaver are pictured Wednesday in Biddeford. Suger and Schlaver moved the headquarters of their clothing line, Angelrox, from New York to Biddeford in 2013.

BIDDEFORD — In 2012, the city agreed to purchase and close the Maine Energy Recovery Company’s wasteto energy incinerator, which had operated for 25 years in the heart of downtown Biddeford. Three years later, with more than $77 million in approved projects in the mill district through 2017, city officials say Biddeford’s long-sought downtown revitalization is no longer just a possibility, but a reality.

 

 

“Just a week ago, the mill district was at 38 percent growth,” Daniel Stevenson, the city’s economic and community development director, said Monday. With the City Council’s approval last week of a 71-unit affordable senior housing complex in the Pepperell Mill Campus, that measurement has shot up to 45 percent, he said.

The former Maine Energy Recover Company site, at 3 Lincoln St., Biddeford, is pictured in this July 3 file photo. The 8.5-acre property is currently a slab of concrete, but it will be developed into a mix of commercial, retail and housing space in the coming years.

The former Maine Energy Recover Company site, at 3 Lincoln St., Biddeford, is pictured in this July 3 file photo. The 8.5-acre property is currently a slab of concrete, but it will be developed into a mix of commercial, retail and housing space in the coming years.

“We’re absorbing the square footage in the mill district very rapidly,” said Stevenson. “That’s good for economic growth. It creates literally hundreds of jobs in both construction and permanent jobs. It also increases the tax base.”

Since January alone, the city has approved a $50 million hotel and apartment complex in the Lincoln Mill, a $15 million apartment complex in the Riverdam Mill and a $12.5 million senior housing complex in the Pepperell Mill – all less than a quarter mile from the former Maine Energy site.

According to data provided by the city, the 1.68 million square feet of space in Biddeford’s mill district was 51 percent vacant in 2014, and by 2017, vacancy will be down to 28 percent.

The effect of the trash burner’s closure has been seen in more than just the former textile mills – namely, on Main Street.

Storefronts on Main Street were 30 percent vacant in 2012, according to city data. Two years later, that figure had dropped to 19 percent, and within the last month, two restaurants have opened.

With the former Maine Energy site empty for the last two years, development projects have flooded downtown Biddeford. Now, as plans to develop the site move forward, city officials predict the property will become even more of a draw to the area.

Officials announced in July that they plan to add a mix of commercial, retail and housing space to the 8.5- acre property, bringing an estimated 100 housing units and 875 jobs to the city.

To keep up with this level of growth, the city has buttressed its economic development efforts with added manpower: John Bubier, who finished his 10-year stint as city manager last week, has started working alongside Stevenson in economic development.

In the newly created position, Bubier will work about 30 hours a week earning about $75,000 a year – a salary some have been critical of – but city officials say his work is needed and, perhaps more importantly, will pay off .

“We have good synergy and with the amount of activity we have, we can continue essentially working seamlessly moving forward,” Stevenson said of his working relationship with Bubier.

While Stevenson continues working on projects primarily downtown, Bubier said he will turn his attention to areas of the city that have not been given as much attention in recent years, such as the former mill buildings north of the railroad tracks, where Elm Street crosses the Saco River, and the four major entrances to the city, from Saco as well as Arundel.

“The opportunity that we have,” said Bubier, “is to complete the mill district, build that out, and then have a place to go over to the other side (of the train tracks) and build almost the same amount of square feet that’s been built to date. … To me the signal is Biddeford is in fact on the top of its game. It’s going to get better. It’s going to get more aggressive. And I think we’re going to see development on the Biddeford side and Saco side that’s going to equal or exceed what we’ve done to date.”

Even two years ago, many saw Biddeford in a different light.

Roxi Suger is a fashion designer who started the clothing line Angelrox in New York in 1999 and moved its headquarters to Biddeford in 2013. On Wednesday, she said that when she told people she was moving her business to Biddeford, a lot of them criticized and questioned that decision.

But now, business is thriving for Suger and her husband Julian Schlaver, who have a work space in the Pepperell Mill Campus. The two also run a boutique called Suger at 25 Alfred St.

“It’s really exciting to see it now just rapid-fire blossoming,” said Suger. “(Biddeford is) filling out and it’s really exciting to see.”

“When we opened it didn’t feel like there was a ton of foot traffic here, we heard lots of comments about safety concerns or of people coming from different communities and feeling a little intimidated in Biddeford,” said Schlaver, who is also a member of the Downtown Development Commission. “But that’s really disappeared.”

“Now we’re getting (customers) from Kennebunk, from Portland, people come up to visit us from Boston and from Massachusetts,” added Suger, “and Biddeford has got draw that people are coming in to see.”

But while Schlaver praised the city for purchasing the former Maine Energy property and preparing, from an administrative standpoint, for more economic development, he also said the Downtown Development Commission wants to see more public works spending to correct long-standing issues with inadequate street signs, crumbling sidewalks and other lacking infrastructure.

“There’s some need for the city, I think, to also put action as well behind some of their words in terms of cleaning up the streets,” he said. “A lot of their efforts are focused on larger-scale development projects but there’s other responsibilities that they still have.”

Though these concerns have gone unaddressed in many areas downtown, they have not been lost on city officials. In fact, Bubier said repairing sidewalks and planting more vegetation are on the city’s to-do list for the next three years.

While officials eye more growth in the next few years – and with it, new businesses – they are also aware of the importance of helping current businesses succeed, which is why Stevenson plans to spearhead a unique business retention program for the city within the year.

The program, Stevenson explained, would allow the public sector to collect data on the private sector, such as industry trends, to determine what the needs of area business owners are so that the city can better serve them.

Stevenson said the program is based on the theory that it is more important to “keep and grow” alreadyestablished businesses than it is to recruit new ones.

Similarly, Delilah Poupore said last week that she has started working full time as the director of the Heart of Biddeford, a downtown revitalization organization founded in 2004, and that will allow her to spend more time with the businesses downtown.

“It really has made a difference to be here full time,” she said. “This gives me more time to head out into the businesses and catch up one-on-one. To have more time to be able to do that is great.”

The city spent $6.7 million to purchase the former Maine Energy site, and Bubier said some people have asked where the return on that investment is.

When faced with the question, both Bubier and Stevenson point not only to the value the property, at 3 Lincoln St., will have once it is developed, but also to the enormous amount of private investment that has occurred in Biddeford in the last three years. This would not have happened, they say, with the trash burner operating downtown.

Kennebunkport developer Tim Harrington, for example, said earlier this month that if Maine Energy were still operating downtown, he would not have pursued his $50 million project to add 79 hotel rooms, 95 apartment units and two restaurants to the Lincoln Mill.

Additionally, Bubier said the city saw a $400,000 decrease in its solid-waste budget immediately after purchasing the property.

“That return on investment is not just on that lot,” said Bubier. “It’s in the ripple effect that’s going on through the entire downtown.”

— Staff Writer Angelo J. Verzoni can be contacted at 282-1535, ext. 329 or [email protected]


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