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Updated: January 24, 2022 Focus on Southern Maine

Bullish on Sanford: Former mill town diversifies with a range of industries

Photo / Tim Greenway David Harrison and his son Will at a future site for their construction and property management firm in Sanford.

In 2020, Bradley Abbott and his late father Jesse began gutting a vacant 95,000-square-foot manufacturing and warehouse building at 1 Eagle Drive in Sanford Industrial Park, on the city’s south side.

The project included installing a new roof and removing some 500 tons of construction debris.

“We were filling six 30-yard dumpsters per day,” says Brad Abbott. “It’s an amount of material you can’t even fathom.” The project resulted in a quick lease of almost all of the space to Biddeford-based corrugated packaging manufacturer Volk Packaging.

Abbott, whose father Jesse passed away in November, is now sole owner of the Scarborough-based development firm 43 North. He was astonished by the turnaround.

Typically, the transition from renovations to full occupancy is three years, and leases would range from 10,000 square feet to 15,000 square feet.

“So the demand for 80,000 square feet was astonishing,” he says.

Bullish on Sanford

That demand is an indicator of the new construction, expansion and relocations Sanford has seen in recent years.

Photo / Tim Greenway
James Nimon, executive director of the Sanford Regional Economic Growth Council.

“A lot of existing companies are bullish on being here and expanding here,” says James Nimon, executive director of the Sanford Regional Economic Growth Council, a nonprofit established in 2009 to improve the economy in the Sanford area, which includes Springvale.

“We try to balance supporting them while working with new companies to build for the future.”

When Nimon came to the council in 2011, industrial development was slow and there was plenty of space available in the city’s industrial parks.

Things changed, as companies expanded in or relocated to Sanford.

Today’s businesses represent many industries and sectors of the economy that trade globally. They include high-tech manufacturers for biotechnology and life sciences, precision manufacturing, and service providers in health care, information technology and engineered materials.

“We have great proximity to Boston and New York City,” says Nimon. “Anecdotally, as we hear that talent and companies are fleeing those areas, we’d like to say that Sanford, Maine, is a great location for you.”

Quick turnaround

That was true for David Harrison of Harrison Development, which is building a 16,000-square-foot building at 58 Smada Drive, around the corner from Abbott’s 1 Eagle Drive.

The Kennebunk company performs construction, site development and management of properties across New England.

Like Abbott, Harrison was introduced to the property by the Dunham Group, a commercial real estate brokerage firm in Portland. He plans to lease out 6,000 square feet and use 10,000 square feet as a central location for his company’s heavy equipment — bulldozers, excavators, screening machine and the like — which are now stowed at various sites.

“We came to the conclusion that we had to have a home base,” Harrison says.

That home base is Sanford due to its welcoming environment.

“Sanford has been an absolutely gracious town to work with,” he says.

For example, a subcontractor was prepared earlier than expected to install the building’s foundation. Harrison didn’t yet have the needed permit.

“If you can get the foundation in before winter, it’s key,” he says. “So I called the building enforcement officer and said, ‘This is the situation. What do we have to do?’ He said, ‘You’ve got to have a department head meeting.’ I said, ‘How soon can we do this? I’d like to keep this guy queued up.’ He called back and said, ‘How about 10 o’clock tomorrow morning?’ I said, ‘Great!’”

Harrison had his permit two hours after the meeting. That willingness to accommodate business is unlike other municipalities, he says.

“Sanford wants to see business,” he says.

Across the street from Harrison Development is Casco Bay Molding, founded in 2000 by Andrew Powell.

Powell was attracted to Sanford because of a growing workforce engaged with similar companies operating in the area. He purchased a 10,000-square-foot plant at 32 Smada Drive and is going through the permitting process to add 24,000 square feet for Casco Bay Molding’s expansion.

“I’m happy to be here,” he says.

Shoes and mohair plush

Historically, Sanford has been a manufacturing community. In the 1800s, industry in Sanford and a village within the city, Springvale, was dominated by the production of shoes and textiles that were distributed nationally and internationally.

By 1910, one mill making “mohair plush” — ideal for carriage robes and upholstering in the burgeoning auto and Pullman rail car industries — employed 3,000 people, a third of Sanford’s population.

Other textile producers followed. The industry brought workers from many countries.

By the 1950s, textile and shoe factories were waning. A number of electronic component and assembly firms located at the industrial parks on Sanford’s south side as branch facilities of national and international firms.

Today, companies of varying sizes manufacture goods as diverse as industrial pumps, furniture, plastic injection molding and building products.

Nimon cites employers like personal-care product maker Tom’s of Maine, now part of Colgate-Palmolive; GVS North America, part of the GVS Group in Italy; and acrylic sheet product maker Roehm America, a subsidiary of Roehm GmbH, which operates one of the world’s largest acrylic plastics businesses.

In 2019, Hussey Seating Co., a North Berwick-based manufacturer of arena and stadium seating, expanded into Sanford. There’s also the Baker Co., an air containment technology manufacturer, and Flemish Master Weavers, a rug manufacturer occupying over 300,000 square.

Rubb Buildings Systems has expanded from 6,000 square feet to nearly 90,000 square feet since the Norwegian company established its Sanford factory in 1983. The company is a global supplier of permanent and relocatable buildings as well as large, custom-engineered structures for commercial and military aviation, marine fabrication, warehousing, and other applications says its president, David Nickerson.

Sanford’s proximity to Boston’s transportation options, with the ability to easily access European markets, is an important benefit, he says.

“We have a great workforce, many folks from Sanford but really from all over York County and some from Cumberland County and even New Hampshire,” he adds. “Also, Maine has a reputation as being a place where you can find people who know how to fabricate steel and who have a positive, can-do work ethic.”

He adds, “Companies are busy. We’re all competing for new employees, so I feel very fortunate to have a strong team here in Sanford.”

Like Nimon, Nickerson has been involved in the development of the city’s industrial parks.

“The citizens were very active bringing in new business,” he says. “In the last 10 to 15 years there’s been a lot of change here, especially with regard to development in south Sanford. A lot of companies have come in and there’s been a lot of construction. And a lot of important infrastructure has been developed in recent years.”

That infrastructure includes notable projects developed since 2018 to boost the city’s business and residential profile:

  • Construction of Sanford Net Fiber, a municipally-owned 45-mile high-speed fiber optic network connected to key employers, the largest municipal broadband network operating in Maine.
  • Construction of a 50-megawatt, 176,000-panel solar power installation in and around Sanford Seacoast Regional Airport, capable of powering 15,000 homes, the largest solar project in Maine and the largest airport solar project in North America.
  • Construction of 15 miles of natural gas main to serve 1,000 homes and businesses.
  • $100 million construction of an integrated high school and technical center, the largest state-funded school; plus modernization of elementary school classrooms.
  • A planning partnership initiative with the Maine Department of Transportation to revitalize the downtown.

Industrial parks

The activity has helped to nearly fill the city’s three industrial parks south of the downtown: Sanford Industrial Estates, Sanford Industrial Park and Airport Business Park.

The city is looking at building a technology park, says Nimon. The park, still a concept, would target technology sectors as defined by the state of Maine, including mature industries like forestry and agriculture and emerging ones such as composite materials, biotechnology and precision manufacturing.

And with another 1,500 acres of undeveloped land — privately owned but zoned for industrial use — there’s potential for further development near the existing industrial parks.

Photo / Tim Greenway
Travis Tremblay, left, director of operations at 1 Eagle Drive; Amy Volk, director of communications and PR for Volk Packaging Corp.; and Brad Abbott, managing director at 43 North.

For Brad Abbott, Sanford made sense as an investment. The building at 1 Eagle Drive had been on his radar for several years as a good fit for 43 North’s model — good-quality, steel buildings dating back to the late 1980s that needed repairs and updates but had good bones and decent-size space.

Greg Hastings, Tom Dunham and TC Haffenreffer, all of the Dunham Group, worked on various aspects of the plan. Abbott worked out a deal with the seller, MaineHealth, to fix up the property and get it ready to lease while MaineHealth retained ownership. Once the building reached 70% to 80% occupancy, 43 North would pay MaineHealth its full asking price.

Once the property was ready to lease, three to four showings per week quickly ensued, with several companies looking to take all or almost all of the space.

One was Biddeford-based Volk Packaging, searching for a large warehouse space to establish a contract packaging division — Volk Paxit.

Volk took 90% of 1 Eagle Drive, after searching for affordable space closer to Biddeford

Photo / Tim Greenway
Amy Volk, president of Volk Paxit

“Unfortunately, we found that a lot of the warehouse space had become so expensive in most of York and Cumberland counties that it didn’t make financial sense for us,” says Volk Paxit’s president, Amy Volk.

Sanford is about a 25-minute drive from Volk’s Biddeford plant, which means an increase in transportation expenses. But, she notes, it’s closer to Volk’s southern Maine and New England clients and it’s opened a new workforce base among Sanford residents who would not have commuted to Biddeford.

“In fact,” she says, “quite a few of our employees refer their friends to us for work.”

New thinking

“I think towns like Sanford and Gorham — some of these that are the next road back off the coast or the highway — get kind of a bad rap,” says Abbott. “It’s an antiquated perspective.”

Nimon keeps a list of products made in Sanford and a quote on his office wall that says “A new world is only a new mind.”

“I send this list to the companies I meet with to reinforce for them, ‘You make all these world-class products here,’” he says. “When I got here, I describe it as an Eeyore complex — ‘Oh dear, it might rain.’ I said, ‘I’m going to buy sunglasses for everyone.’ Much of it is about reshaping people’s thinking.”

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January 30, 2022

Business such as those featured in this article are paramount to the current and future success of Sanford. Any town is capable of moving past a negative reputation towards a positive future which is greatly enhanced by those leaders featured in this article.

January 25, 2022
What a very extensive well written article. Nicely done. Good sourcing, good fact finding. Learned a lot!
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