As Sasa Cook wends his way through the Dana Warp Mill in Westbrook, he points out the improvements he's made since buying the property five months ago: energy-efficient lighting triggered by sensors; a new smokestack; a covered entryway; roof repairs in progress high above the Presumpscot River.
In disrepair and foreclosure earlier this year, the mill now hums with activity. Little girls in dance outfits run down the halls, employees at Artforms make screen-printed T-shirts, others package barbecue spices for Denny Mike's. Cook has spent $750,000 so far and expects to spend another $2 million on the 246,000-square-foot building. He's boosted its occupancy rate from 74% to 80%, filling another 20,000 square feet.
Cook is also involved in the energy field, working on a proposal to bring a liquefied methane plant to Brewer, which is still seeking financing. Mainebiz talked to Cook recently about his plans for the Dana Warp Mill. An edited transcript follows.
Mainebiz: Why did you decide to buy this mill?
Sasa Cook: I guess it was sort of opportunistic. I have four other properties in Westbrook and one in South Portland, and my first property I bought here in February 2005. I think I naturally gravitated to Westbrook for several reasons: One, I think from a pricing standpoint, there's greater upside, greater value to be had in Westbrook. Two, I think there's greater political risk in Portland. I was involved in the redevelopment of the Maine State Pier and I saw Portland government at its worst, and I vowed that I would never invest a dime in Portland, never, never.
I'm always on the hunt for attractively priced properties.
And you've been busy doing some work on the place?
A lot of repairs, but I think it's a testament to our long-term commitment to the outfit. I think there's a lot of upside to be achieved here in Westbrook, and we can attract … the entrepreneur who's graduating from their garage and is looking to go out and secure a unit. And we're not talking much money. Really, how I'm trying to position it is to try to overcome any fear of getting out of your garage. I want to be able to offer an all-in price, so when I say the rent is X a month, it includes heat, hot water, electricity, potentially the Internet, so that somebody who doesn't have an idea of what are necessarily all the expenses that go along with owning a business, they'll have some comfort ... they'll know what [the costs] will be on a monthly basis. And we're talking anywhere from $275-$350 a month for the smallest unit here, which I think is pretty affordable.
The great thing is, we can accommodate that person, and at the same time we can accommodate somebody who needs 20,000 square feet. …We have a fair amount of room up on the fourth floor, and I'd like to position it so that we could attract a Carbonite, that went to Lewiston-Auburn. … And I'm really interested to further develop the relationship between the mill and the river.
What would that entail?
I'd like to put in maybe a restaurant that has an outdoor porch that works with the water. At the same time, though, I'm extremely sensitive because I realize the mill derives great value from its neighbors, and what can be offered down on Main Street in Westbrook. … The last thing I want to do is go in and steal business from an already reduced pie.
I could see an outdoor outfitter here, like an EMS or an REI or maybe a local brand, where [if] you want to try out a kayak, well, just try it out right out the back door and see what it's like. There's no outdoor outfitter right now that's on the river; it might help draw some traffic here.