At Mast Landing Brewing Co. last month, three members of Westbrook’s burgeoning small-business community caught up on recent activity in the city and the latest news from their companies.

Each of them – Ian Dorsey of Mast Landing, Greg Benoit of Benoit’s Design Co., and Peter Anania of LocalHost Coworking – said their businesses have seen progress and growth this year. And, they’ve also noticed more small businesses looking at Westbrook for the same reasons that brought them here: lower rent, proximity to Portland and a sense of community.

“I chose Westbrook because I wanted a community that we could plant some roots and grow with,” said Dorsey, the president of Mast Landing.

In a city known for national powerhouse employers like Sappi Fine Paper and Idexx Laboratories, an expanding base of small enterprises is capitalizing on lower startup costs within the boom of Greater Portland.

Benoit and Anania are part of a new school of businesses that have quietly set up shop in the Dana Warp Mill in the past few years. The renovated historic mill has struggled over the last decade to retain high occupancy rates, but has experienced an influx of new business – both small and large – since last year. It is now argubly the center of the city’s entrepreneurial traction.

The mill is also home to the textile pattern designer Erin Flett, whose designs have become wildly popular both locally and internationally. She was recently named a finalist on the Etsy “Open Call” contest, where wholesale sellers from the website are paired with national retailers. She also appears on the cover of the September “stylemakers” issue of Better Homes & Gardens.

Flett said that Westbrook, and the mill in particular, is “full of entrepreneurs.”

“I do think we run a bit under the radar,” she said of Westbrook, “but the mill is an insanely amazing place to open a shop or business.”

Dorsey, 30, is from Freeport, but he and his Mast Landing co-founders were looking for a city, and building, that would allow them to expand within the Maine craft beer craze. Since opening last year at a former warehouse at 920 Main St., Westbrook’s first brewery and tasting room has become a popular destination. Just recently, the brewery opened an outdoor patio extention of its tasting room.

They’ve also embraced the Westbrook community, brewing Wessie IPA following the buzz surrounding a reported 10-foot-long snake in the nearby Presumpscot River. Local bars and restaurants have also begun serving Mast Landing beer.

“We work hard to make the best beer we can and we really wanted a community that would take pride in that,” Dorsey said.

Benoit, 28, brought his laser-cutting business to the mill in 2014, creating wholesale home-decor accessories and custom designs for other local businesses using a variety of materials. Just recently, he said, he designed custom logos for audio speakers that are now used in a local brewery’s tasting room – something that he and Dorsey discussed building for Mast Landing.

After three years in Westbrook, Benoit’s Design Co. will soon be moving to a larger space in the mill. Benoit said before coming to the city, he and his sister, Margaret, who also works for the company, looked at several locations outside of Portland, but “fell in love with the old characteristics and community within the Dana Warp Mill.”

“We’re very excited for what’s to come,” he added, regarding the larger space.

Anania, 29, had a similar experience starting LocalHost, a co-working venture providing office space for independent professionals. In the past year, the space has added to the number of entrepreneurs working downtown. He said LocalHost has 10 members that either have their own business or are working remotely for national companies. There are still two desk spaces available.

“I visited all the coworking spaces and they were either full, not appealing to me or too expensive,” he said referring to his search prior to last year.

Anania, a Westbrook resident and marketing professional, said he came up with the idea of starting his own space and looked at a few locations in Westbrook.

“I stumbled upon the Dana Warp Mill and partnered with the owner to get the space up and running,” he said.

The listing broker for the mill, Nate Stevens of Boulos, said last week that the mill offers a range of spaces, all with varying prices per square foot. He said when he took over as broker at the mill in 2006, most of the spaces were $6 per square-foot. They now range from $6 to $10. He said on average, Westbrook’s square-footage prices for commercial space downtown hover around $12 per square foot, compared to the $16 average of downtown Portland.

“People will lease something here with twice the space they need, and only use half of it, because its still less expensive than if they were to lease something in Portland,” he said.

A few weeks ago, from the roof of the brewery, where the Don’s Lunch van and Dana Warp Mill could be easily spotted, the trio talked about other area businesses. Benoit mentioned a small bakery called Nothing Bakes Like A Parrott, operated by Jessica Parrott, which relocated to the mill from South Portland. The bakery specializes in custom wedding and event cakes, cupcakes and more. Also in the mill is Mad Gab’s, a manufacturer of organic body care products.

Anania said Bennett Watson and his company zFlo, Inc., which creates intricate motion-analysis technology, is yet another example. When asked why he chose Westbrook, Watson also said “ample office space with extremely competitive rates.”

“I feel it’s underappreciated as a place to set up shop,” he said.

Elsewhere in the city, other relatively new small businesses are growing a base of customers. Bill Baker, Westbrook’s former assistant city administrator who has been working as an economic development consultant for the city, listed a number of businesses that fall into the category.

He said companies like North Spore, a mushroom cultivation business also operating in the mill, and Maine Warrior Gym on Spring Street, which offers a blend of fitness classes like parkour and ninja warrior training, are other notable examples.

“I think our efforts to change the way people think about Westbrook – and then the response they get when they dip their toe in the water – has spawned this trend, which we are very excited about and grateful for,” Baker said.

Douglas Ray, the director of legislative affairs and communications for the Maine Department of Economic & Community Development, agreed that Westbrook has benefited from cheaper costs and its proximity to Portland, but said the city has also increased its exposure statewide with marketing campaigns such as television commercials.

“They’re competing,” he said of Westbrook, but added that the challenges facing small businesses are the same facing larger ones – energy costs, taxes and finding a “capable, qualified workforce.”

Ray said Westbrook is a “certified business-friendly” community by the state and is also considered a Pine Tree Development Zone, which offers eligible businesses a reduction in state taxes for up to 10 years when they create new, quality jobs in certain business sectors, or move existing jobs in those sectors to Maine.

“If you’re a startup and you want to tap into Greater Portland, that’s something that a lot of site selectors or those who crunch numbers in the private sector will consider,” he said.

While marketing campaigns for the city have boosted exposure, the small businesses themselves also want all of Greater Portland to know where they are.

When asked how the brewery’s tasting room traffic had been lately, Dorsey said there is still work to do on getting the word out about their location in Westbrook, and it mirrors the efforts of many other businesses in the city hoping to expand brand awareness.

“There are still so many people that come in and say, ‘I never knew you were here,'” he said, adding that he likes hearing that. “Now you do, and hopefully you like the product and come back.”

From left, Ian Dorsey of Mast Landing Brewing, Greg Benoit of Benoit’s Design, and Peter Anania of LocalHost Coworking chat on the roof of Mast Landing in August. Their businesses are part of a growing number of small, enterprise businesses in Westbrook.

From left, Ian Dorsey, Greg Benoit and Peter Anania.

Erin Flett in her studio at the Dana Warp Mill. Flett has been based in Westbrook for three years, during which time her designs and items have been wildly popular and featured in magazines worldwide.

Westbrook resident Peter Anania has spent the last year building a co-working space in the Dana Warp Mill after what he said was an “exhaustive” search for a similar space in Portland.

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