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October 10, 2019

Biddeford Lincoln Mill development is part of a bigger plan for mill district

Photo / Maureen Milliken Development has started on the Lincoln Mill in Biddeford, one of several projects that will transform the city's mill area. City Hall is in the background at right.

The groundbreaking for the Lincoln Mill redevelopment Wednesday had been years in the making, and though brief, it felt like a celebration.

But the celebration wasn't only for the 240,000-square-foot, long-vacant mill just off Main Street, but also for the hundreds of thousands more of square footage and empty space in the city's mill district that will be transformed in the next few years.

"This means so much to so many people," Mayor Alan Casavant told those gathered for the groundbreaking ceremony. "Think of how many people worked in this mill."

But the transformation of the mill, and those around it, will lead to a new generation working and living in them, with many new uses, he said, noting the "diversity, prosperity, artistry, creative expression" and more that's transforming the city.

"My meme and pepe emigrated from Canada and worked in this mill," he said. "I'm sure they'd be proud of what the mills are becoming."

The renovation is the first of four major projects that target the city's mill district, 40 acres of brick buildings and empty space.

The city in 2009 had completed a master plan for redevelopment of the mill yard, but little happened as the recession it and recovery was slow. Now that other projects, including at the Pepperell Mill complex, have helped transform the city, that plan is largely obsolete Casavant said after yesterday's ceremony.

"Biddeford has changed a lot since then," he said. "Every single prediction for Biddeford has been blown out of the water."

The city's transformation is more than just a renaissance, but a "Biddessance." A phrase coined by the Portland Phoenix years ago and now part of the city's vernacular, it was used more than once during Wednesday's event.

The median age in the city of 21,500 is 35.6, in a state where the population is aging and the overall median age is 44.9. "We have young people moving here from all over," Casavant said. "We have people moving here from Brooklyn." He laughed. "Brooklyn!"

Photo / Maureen Milliken
The site of the former Maine Energy Recovery Corp. at 3 Lincoln St., Biddeford. The nine-acre site is slated for development.

Sparks to redevelopment

Much of the change over the past dozen years, from empty mills to redeveloped ones, was sparked by the redevelopment of the 1 million-square-foot Pepperell complex, that includes 16 buildings on 17 acres. Doug Sanford bought the complex in two pieces, in 2004 and 2010.

By last year, 750,000 square feet of that space had been redeveloped into apartments, retail and office space. The mill has 121 businesses that employ more than 500 people, with tenants ranging from Banded Horn Brewing and tasting room, to Ocean’s Balance edible seaweed producer to Think Tank coworking space.

The city, too, has taken an aggressive approach to redevelopment.

In 2012, it bought the Maine Energy Recovery Corp., a waste incinerator in the mill district, which at the time was the city's biggest taxpayer. Built in 1987, it was owned by Casella Waste.  

After the $6.75 million purchase, the city razed the buildings, leaving only the smokestack on the nine-acre site, which is also by the city leased as a cell tower.

Removing the waste plant from downtown sparked development.

"Following the removal of MERC, absorption of existing mill space picked up dramatically and vacancy rates in downtown Biddeford plummeted," said a report from Camoin Associates, of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in 2015. "Nothing in the historic data suggested this abrupt change."

Camoin was hired by the city to develop a strategy for the site at 3 Lincoln St., and the results are plans for the city's first parking garage, flanked by a mixed-use development planned by Portland developers Jim Brady and Brian Eng, both announced a year ago.

Brady also owns the former Post Office Building, 27 Washington St., which is also being restored.

"We are excited to help the city of Biddeford develop a plan to integrate 3 Lincoln into the ongoing downtown renaissance," Brady said at the time the MERC site plans were announced.

Next to the MERC site is the broken-down former Saco Falls Mill, for which a redevelopment proposal is being discussed, Casavant said.

Down Saco Falls Way, which runs in between 3 and 17 Lincoln, the Riverdam Mill will be redeveloped to include workforce housing. 

Photo / Maureen Milliken
Developers Tim Harrington, left, with microphone, and Eric Chinburg at Wednesday's Lincoln Mill groundbreaking ceremony.

Believed, fought hard

The $50 million Lincoln project, once completed, will include 148 luxury apartments, a 33-room hotel, a rooftop bar with a pool, restaurant and retail space.

Tim Harrington, of Kennebunk, bought the mill for $2.5 million in 2015. Plans since then hit some snags, including a plan change the development to apartments-only to making financing work. The hotel and and other retail aspects were revived this year.

Harrington said Wednesday that the hotel is an important part of the plan. "We believed in the hotel, we believed in the mixed use component, and fought hard to do it," he said. 

Chinburg, who's developed or is developing 15 former mill buildings in New England, four of them in Maine, was brought in two years ago.

Harrington said that partnership, as well as the city's help helped got the project to where it is.

Brick reconstruction work is being done on the building, and developers expect the hotel to be open by spring 2021.

Both the hotel and parking garage, are key to the mill yard redevelopment, Casavant said, "and we now have both."

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