BRUNSWICK — Coleman Burke purchased the business complex known as Fort Andross in 1986, two years before the 300th anniversary of the structure’s construction.

Burke, managing partner of a New York-based commercial real estate firm, came to Maine in the 1980s in search of waterfront properties. While he had the Atlantic ocean in mind, the Androscoggin would do, he decided.

The Brunswick Downtown Association honored Burke at a breakfast Tuesday to celebrate 30 years of his stewardship of the historic building. He transformed the former trading post and textile mill from an aging industrial center into a thriving economic and arts complex. 

“I have a theory of the country,” Burke told the crowded audience at the Colman Burke Gallery at Fort Andross. “It has no history, compared to the Old World.”

In the United States, Burke said, a 100-year-old building is practically an antique.

A building three times that age?

Burke was enticed. “It’s a keeper,” he said.

He bought the 450,000-square-foot complex with a vision for mixed development that would revitalize the site to the status of economic importance it held hundreds of years ago. 

About 145 businesses, markets, restaurants, artists studios, and galleries – even a radio station – now call Fort Andross home.

In her 13 years at Cabot Antiques, manager Deborah Stufflebeam has watched Fort Andross become what Burke called a “humming beehive” of activity.

Stufflebeam said that activity describes both the diversity of her fellow tenants, and the visitors that make the fort a destination.

Much like bees, Stufflebeam said customers who visit her business often stop by others in the fort, too – a bite to eat at Frontier Cafe, browsing in one of the galleries – and the movement breeds a kind of economic and social cross-pollination that is unlike the average business setting.

But Burke’s vision wasn’t always obvious to everyone.

Town Manager John Eldridge, who introduced Burke Tuesday, said 1986 also happened to be the first time he set foot in Brunswick.

Stopping off after a trip down Maine’s coast, Fort Andross was the first thing to catch his eye, and he asked himself, “What can do you do with an old, red mill?”

But when Burke first saw the colossus of bricks, he saw something that would last. “It will last 1,000 years because of the bricks and wood if some idiot doesn’t tear it down,” Burke said.

And upon seeing the woodwork inside the building? “I swooned,” he said.

Burke’s son Eric, who was also one of his first hires, recalled the mid-1980s mill complex in less glamorous terms, and cited it as a home for transients, animals, and an unlikely number of forgotten cans of beans – enough to feed him for a week, he said.

“It was a pigeon convention every single day at Fort Andross,” he said with a chuckle in a video message to his father, played Tuesday morning.

Burke and his son were tasked with clearing out the building’s prior inhabitants, as well as replacing 857 windows before it was suitable for businesses.

For a while, the Fort was anchored by Cabot Antiques, Cumberland Self-Storage, and the Waterfront Flea Market, which Burke’s company, Waterfront Maine, owns.

Burke praised Anthony Gatti, who managers Fort Andross, for adding self-storage businesses, and for growing the number tenants over time.

That success was gradual, according to Stufflebeam, but she’s noticed an uptick in activity and businesses in the last five years.

She credited Burke’s insight with identifying the natural partnership between antiques and the old mill in 1996; since then, it has garnered a set of international clients and a waiting list for dealers.

Coincidentally, Stufflebeam began her career as a spinner in a cotton and wool mill in Winthrop.

Though she is surrounded by old objects and furniture, sometimes it’s the building itself that turns up bits of history – like a trap door she recognized from her time in Winthrop, used for hauling spools of fiber between floors.

“It sort of feels like a kindred spirit,” Stufflebeam said.

Callie Ferguson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100, or at [email protected]. Follow Callie on Twitter: @calliecferguson.

Coleman Burke purchased Fort Andross in Brunswick 30 years ago with a vision for mixed-use development that has come to fruition.