Matthew Hill, Sanford’s director of public works, helped plan and apply for a $25 million federal grant the city is using to reconstruct roads and other infrastructure in an effort to revitalize the downtown area, including the city’s Gateway Park.  Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

Ayn Hanselmann knows downtown Sanford might look a little tired these days.

Empty storefronts. Crumbling sidewalks. Old mills still waiting to be renovated for new uses.

What passersby don’t see is the energy bubbling under the surface and the groundwork being laid by small-business owners, longtime residents and others who envision a more vibrant downtown.

“Right now, I don’t think Sanford downtown gives an accurate sense of how awesome our community is,” said Hanselmann, a city councilor and member of the Friends of Downtown Sanford. “Downtown doesn’t show the sense of pride so many of us have.”

That vision for a more vibrant downtown is getting a boost from a $25 million federal grant that local leaders say will transform how Sanford revitalizes and invests in the core of a city once known for its busy mills and bustling Main Street.

“This is a big game-changer for Sanford,” said public works director Matthew Hill, who led the effort to plan and apply for the grant.


The city will use the grant, plus an additional $10 million in local and state funding, to reconstruct roads and sidewalks in the heart of downtown, install energy-efficient streetlights, improve parking and extend the SanfordNet fiber-optic network to the downtown and mill district. The project includes building a park-and-ride facility to serve Portsmouth Naval Shipyard employees – there are 524 in Sanford, more than any other town in Maine.

The grant also will help the city complete the Mousam Promenade, a 1.5-mile pathway around Number One Pond, and connect it to the local trail system.

Maine will receive nearly $50 million through the Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity program, or RAISE, to fund Sanford’s downtown revitalization project and a transportation project in Bangor. Sanford’s grant of $25 million is the largest amount available from the program. Bangor will receive $24.6 million to replace an aging section of Hogan Road that crosses over Interstate 95.

Part of the federal funding will be used to complete the Mousam Promenade, a 1.5-mile pathway around Number One Pond, and connect it to the local trail system. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

This month, the Biden administration announced $2.2 billion in new federal RAISE grants had been awarded to fund 166 projects in both urban and rural communities. Grants are intended to help communities complete projects that modernize infrastructure and make transportation systems safe, more accessible, more affordable and more sustainable.

Sanford applied for the grant with the Maine Department of Transportation, which has been working with Sanford and other communities across the state on planning for projects that revitalize downtowns and village centers.

“The investment in Sanford is exciting and will be transformative,” Sen. Susan Collins, a ranking member of the Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee, said in a statement when she announced the Maine grants. “It will help revitalize the downtown and improve the quality of life for the city’s residents, attract more visitors and support small businesses.”



Sanford, with a population of about 22,000, is Maine’s seventh largest city. It sits at the crossroads of York County, with routes 4, 202 and 109 passing through the downtown and mill district.

From the 1830s through the 1950s, the Goodall Textile Mills were the employment anchor of the city and specialized in manufacturing woolen cloth blankets and upholstery. As production at the mills increased, more people flocked to the area. The population was 2,700 in 1883, but by 1910, around 9,000 people lived in Sanford, including 3,000 people who worked in the mills.

Sanford’s Gateway Park on Mousam Promenade, a 1.5-mile pathway around Number One Pond. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

Many of those workers lived in housing built near the mills. People walked to work and to the stores and restaurants that filled downtown.

But like in many New England mill towns, manufacturing declined in the second half of the 20th century. People moved away, businesses closed and the city was left with a tax base unable to support needed infrastructure improvements.

The economic downturn at the beginning of the 21st century hit Sanford hard. Downtown businesses that once had been successful closed as people flocked to big box stores and online retailers. Over the past decade, city leaders have sought public and private investment to revitalize the downtown and make it a desirable destination.


An important aspect of accomplishing that is investing in infrastructure.

The city council in recent years has prioritized road work across the city and voters approved a $6.2 million bond in 2019 for roadwork. At the same time, Hill, the public works director, and other city staff worked with MDOT on planning initiatives and finding funding for downtown projects.

Projects like the one in Sanford bring back downtown areas that are walkable and accessible, something that was often lost when people shifted to driving more and shopping at strip malls in the 1980s. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

Sanford partnered with the state on a large-scale village partnership initiative. The program is designed to help towns and cities plan projects to achieve a community vision for a vibrant village or downtown that is walkable and sustainable, said Dale Doughty, the director of MDOT’s Bureau of Planning.

Doughty said projects like the one in Sanford bring back downtown areas that are walkable and accessible, something that often was lost when people shifted to driving more and shopping at strip malls in the 1980s. When communities invest in work to make villages and downtowns more vibrant, investments in businesses and housing follows, he said. Those types of projects have been successful in Ogunquit, Hallowell, Naples and Portland’s Woodfords Corner.

“I’d like to see our villages and downtowns really thriving again,” Doughty said.

Sanford’s plans for the village partnership initiative already were well-formed when word came that federal money might be available through the new RAISE grants. Hill thought Sanford’s project would be a perfect fit, but he also knew that only 10 percent of applicants get funded through the competitive grant process.


“It’s not as high odds as the lottery, but it’s that feeling when you hit it,” he said.


City Manager Steven Buck was in a meeting when a call came in from a restricted number and he sent it to voicemail. It didn’t take long to figure out it was Collins calling to tell him that Sanford was getting the RAISE grant.

Even though the city had been planning for downtown improvements, funding had not been guaranteed and it would have taken years to fund it locally. Now, the city can use money raised through taxes to pay for road projects across the city.

Molly Foisy of Dick Landry Lawncare rakes an area that will be a new sidewalk in Sanford’s Westside Village where sidewalks, walls and roads are being reconstructed. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

“That is the huge transformative piece,” Buck said. “Not only can we do the RAISE grant area in one fell swoop, but we also will have a much more aggressive approach to addressing our side streets.”

Work on those other streets is already underway and will continue in coming years, but it will be 2026 before construction begins in the RAISE grant area. The work is expected to take four years. Before construction begins, officials need to complete final design work, complete a right-of-way survey and notify and coordinate with utility companies.


Mayor Anne-Marie Mastraccio lives downtown and has long advocated for investing in revitalizing the area because it is critical for economic development. Now that the city has secured funding for this major project, she wants to harness that energy to spur investment in the mills and get people excited about coming downtown.

“We want it to be a place where there are reasons for people to stop,” she said.

Hanselmann, the city councilor and Friends of Sanford Downtown member, hopes the project will help people in the community connect with the energy and work being done downtown now that feels more tangible.

“The funding for it seemed so far off. Now when we talk about it, it’s going to happen,” she said. “I hope there is a lot of pride and enthusiasm. That’s what the community needs to latch onto.”

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