After a false start in 2017, residents of Berwick are hopeful a new landowner can deliver on promises to transform an abandoned former tannery site at the town’s center into a vibrant mix of businesses, homes and green space.

Great Falls Construction of Gorham said it has purchased the former Prime Tanning Mill property in downtown Berwick – which had employed hundreds of area residents for decades before closing in 2008 – with the goal of redeveloping the nearly 12-acre site into a mixed-use project with commercial, residential and parkland components. The developer said it intends to seek input from community residents in a series of public meetings before finalizing a site plan for the project.

“Our goal … is to understand the needs of the local community and work with them to formulate a plan to address those needs,” Great Falls President Jonathan Smith said. “It’s more than just building buildings.”

The ownership change comes more than two years after the previous landowner, Mark Kehaya of Florida-based The Fund of Jupiter LLC, made similar promises for the site but failed to follow through.

Thomas Wright, chairman of the Berwick Board of Selectmen, said Kehaya had good intentions but was not an experienced developer and only got involved because he had been an investor in Prime Tanning, which closed the Berwick tannery in 2008, laid off its 150 remaining workers and later filed for bankruptcy.

Before closing in 2008, Prime Tanning in Berwick was considered one of the best tanneries in the country. Here, Dan Toland and Ron DeCourt grade and sort leather sides. A new owner has purchased the nearly 12 acres the plant sat on and intends to redevelop it with input from the community. John Ewing/Staff Photographer

Located along the Salmon Falls River in western York County, Berwick is home to about 7,000 residents. The tannery opened in 1930 and became the downtown area’s focal point, employing more than 600 people at its peak and building a reputation as one of the premier leather-finishing operations in New England.

After Prime Tanning shut down and the company filed for bankruptcy, the buildings on the sprawling property fell into disrepair, leaving an area of blight and inactivity in the center of town.

In 2014, Berwick struck a deal with Fund of Jupiter to take ownership of the 11.7-acre Prime Tanning property temporarily to allow the town to apply for environmental remediation grants to clean up the contaminated industrial site. Private businesses are not eligible to apply for the funds.

That same year, the town formed a community development group called Envision Berwick to focus on downtown revitalization work and plan for the cleanup at the Prime Tanning property.

The town ultimately received $1.4 million in federal and state environmental grants, and the cleanup work is virtually completed, but there has been no redevelopment.

“Development wasn’t their primary business, so things were languishing,” Wright said about Kehaya and the Fund of Jupiter. “He talked a lot about what he wanted to do, but nothing ever came to fruition on that.”

Wright said the town specifically sought out Great Falls to buy the former tannery site from Kehaya after a Berwick official became aware of the work it had done on the Station Square project in Gorham Village, a 70,000-square-foot development that includes a mix of businesses and residences. The properties are managed by JCS Property Management, also based in Gorham.

“They came down and met with several of the town officials down here, and we explained what we were looking for,” Wright said. “It’s a chance to develop a brand new downtown. Not many places have an opportunity to do that.”

The Prime Tanning Co. in Berwick in 2001. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

Smith, the president of Great Falls, said he envisions a village center with one- and two-bedroom residences perched above shops and restaurants in a vibrant, walkable area surrounded by grass and trees. Ideally, the town would relocate its post office and library to the new town center, he said.

Smith said he doesn’t know what the project will cost, but that he plans to begin assembling a planning and development team immediately. He declined to say how much his company paid for the land.

The first of two meetings to solicit residents’ comments and ideas for the project is scheduled for 6 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in Berwick’s Town Hall Auditorium at 11 Sullivan St., Smith said, adding that a second meeting is scheduled for Dec. 5.

“We’d love to be doing some construction in 2020, and ideally in the spring of 2020, but there’s a lot to do between now and then,” he said. “We are going to get moving right away.”

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