The Vertical Harvest project, at the corner of William L. Clarke Drive and Mechanic Street in Westbrook, is slated to open toward the end of 2023. The project, which is meant to bring fresh produce to the city while also helping to revitalize the downtown, will consist of the Vertical Harvest building itself, a parking garage and apartments. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

WESTBROOK — In a former parking lot behind businesses along Main Street, steamrollers have been flattening a block-long swath of dirt and debris to clear the way for a new mixed-use development that the city hopes will fundamentally change its downtown.

Over the last two weeks, a steel structure has risen near Mechanic Street – the first sign of upward momentum for a four-story indoor farm that the developer says will employ nearly four dozen workers with intellectual disabilities and produce millions of pounds of microgreens for the area’s ever-expanding food scene.

That piece of the project, being developed by Jackson, Wyoming-based company Vertical Harvest, is set to be completed within two years. Construction on the other components – 50 to 60 apartments and a 400-space parking garage – has been delayed by utility issues and the discovery of ledge under the site.

The garage will allow the city to consolidate its downtown parking, opening up other lots for commercial and residential development.

“The economic impact on our downtown is going to be huge with the addition of the parking garage. We really want people in our downtown to be able to support our businesses,” said Westbrook Mayor Mike Foley. “The goal, really, is to have residential expansion in our downtown area because the region is in a housing crisis.”

A rendering of the Vertical Harvest project, now under construction at William Clarke Drive in Westbrook. Along with the urban indoor farm, the development will have a parking garage and apartments. Photo courtesy of Vertical Harvest

But without Vertical Harvest’s farm, Foley said, there wasn’t enough demand for the parking garage alone. The idea for coupling the two projects came from developer Greg Day, who did not respond to requests for an interview. Day had heard about Vertical Harvest’s original farm in Wyoming and wanted to bring a similar project to Westbrook as an “innovative component for his master plan,” said Vertical Harvest Chief Executive Officer Nona Yehia.


Yehia was intrigued, especially because of the project’s proximity to Portland and its restaurant scene.

Portland is an amazing foodie town … (Foley) really had a vision that aligned with ours, that the farm could contribute to the community,” Yehia said.

“As it gets harder to maintain farmland and as land becomes more scarce, people will be looking to (indoor farming) as the future,” said Foley.

The parking garage is being funded through tax-increment financing, or a TIF, which makes use of the anticipated increase in tax revenue generated by the development. Because the initial TIF was not generating enough revenue, it was coupled with another TIF on a natural gas substation being built in the city.


Unlike traditional Maine farms, Vertical Harvest’s towering 68-foot urban hydroponic garden uses no soil and will be able to grow produce year-round. In its first year, Yehia estimates that will amount to 2.6 million pounds. Food wholesaler Native Maine will supply the microgreens to local restaurants and grocery stores.


“We’re really creating a more resilient supply chain for communities,” Yehia said.

But it could have downsides, according to Sarah Alexander, the executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, or MOFGA, who worries about the impact on local farmers.

Farmers are very concerned about the disruption of the relationships they have built with wholesale and restaurant markets,” she said. “We hear from farmers who are very worried about the prospect of a glut on the lettuce market as cut salad greens are a significant factor in the profitability of their businesses.”

Alexander said that 31 MOFGA-certified farms in the surrounding area may be at risk of being priced out of the market by a larger – and wealthier – corporate farm.

Yehia said that the company hopes to work with local farmers to ensure that it does not disrupt the local economy.

“We’re looking to be complementary to local farmers, not predatory,” she said.


Alexander is also skeptical of the project’s environmental friendliness.

“It’s touted that indoor farming uses less water, but water in a soil-based farming system is doing more than just providing water to a crop, it’s part of a larger ecosystem that is supporting beneficial plants, insects and wildlife,” she said. “We also have questions about the facility’s waste streams such as crop residue, chemicals used to grow the plants, wastewater, wash water and plastic packaging.”

But in the bigger picture, the project could have environmental benefits, according to Sam Milton, founder of Cape Elizabeth-based consulting firm Climate Resources Group, which advises developers on how to minimize their impact.

“(Vertical farming) does use more energy than farming in the sun, but if you look at it on a 12-month cycle, it may have a lower carbon footprint than growing outdoors and shipping those crops across the world,” he said.

Yehia hopes that the company will become more energy efficient as Westbrook does.

“These take energy to run, there’s no question about it,” Yehia said. “One of the reasons we partner with municipalities is that as the grid gets greener, so do we.”



Another unusual aspect of Vertical Harvest’s model is its approach to hiring, which is to employ people with intellectual and developmental disabilities – people who frequently come across employers who have low expectations of them, said Maine Disabilities Council Associate Director Rachel Dyer.

She believes Vertical Harvest will help bring awareness to that problem by hiring them in visible and important roles.

“It’s not going to fix the chronic unemployment of those with (intellectual and developmental disabilities), but it appears to me that they have a good understanding of the barriers facing those with (them),” she said. “Being employed is really good for people’s health and relationships.”

But it will still be a while before the city enjoys the project’s benefits. For now, the residents of Westbrook have to deal with road closures and a large, active downtown construction site, where complications have added to timeline.

The construction of the garage and apartments has been delayed by the discovery of ledge, or bedrock, along with the need to relocate and renovate utilities, namely storm and sewer pipes, that are underneath the former parking lot.


“Nobody was expecting ledge to crop up in the middle of Main Street,” Westbrook Director of Planning and Code Enforcement Jennie Franceschi said. “We’re rerouting those (utility) lines around the project, through the streets, which has been a little bit more problematic than we were hoping it was going to be.”

Meanwhile, a section of neighboring Mechanic Street has been closed off since June, which has been disruptive to nearby businesses.

Keri Li, owner of restaurant China Villa, said she had to reduce her employees’ hours to save on expenses.

“Customers say that, because of the traffic, they don’t want to come into this area. It has really impacted our business,” Li said.

Still, she’s grateful that the city has made Facebook videos to inform residents that Mechanic Street businesses are still open. 

“(The city) does a lot too. They try to help us. We’ve just accepted what has happened,” Li said.

And the city is eager to find out what the project’s impact could be.

“We’re just really excited to see the energy that this particular business is offering. It’s something completely different than what we have going on anywhere else in the city,” Franceschi said.

This story was updated at 10:54 a.m. Aug. 22 to correct the height of the farm and its employment practices, and to clarify the piece of the project that is being funded through tax-increment financing.

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