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OAKLAND — Nearly two decades after the FirstPark business park opened on 285 acres of former farmland and woods on the edge of Interstate 95, it's making strides towards the potential promised when it was first envisioned.
Things may seem quiet at the site, now the FirstPark Commerce and Technology Center, which still features more heavily wooded empty lots than those with businesses, but looks can be deceiving.
Gateway Financial Service has set up shop in formerly empty office space at 46 FirstPark Drive. The company moved in two weeks ago and plans a ribbon-cutting later this month.
A couple hundred yards down FirstPark Drive, Waterville Community Dental, which moved there in November, has a shiny new sign and full parking lot.
Across the street, a vacant lot awaits another dental practice that bought the lot and plans to build soon.
A MaineGeneral orthopedic center that leases a 20,000-square-foot building that was the first building on the site, a prototype built in 2001, just added 50 spaces to their parking lot.
"So I think they're going to stay awhile," Jim Dinkle, FirstPark executive director, said during a tour of the 285-acre campus Wednesday morning.
T-Mobile, which built an 80,000-square-foot call center that opened in 2005, now employs 825, up from its pre-recession numbers of 700.
When the business and technology park, with 22 lots, was established in 2000, after the Kennebec Regional Development Authority, which owns it, was formed by the Legislature in 1998, predictions were for 3,000 jobs and big revenue for the 24 towns that form the KRDA.
The park's first big triumph in 2005 was attracting T-Mobile, which took two lots, but it was also the last triumph for a long time.
The recession hit, the park went through several directors, real estate brokers and marketing plans, but things were slow and the towns that bought in started getting restless.
"The focus has changed," said Dinkle, who took the helm at FirstPark in November 2017.
Last year, the KRDA board revised the covenant, which originally stressed business and technology, loosening up what's allowed, including adding residential and commercial uses.
Some 8,000 square feet of building space has been sold or leased or sold in the park this calendar year, including the 3,600 square feet leased by Gateway.
There have been three site visits this month, including a site consultant from out of state who represents two clients interested in multi-acre acre parks.
Dinkle is hoping for more commercial interest in the four northern lots beyond T-Mobile that line Interstate 95, including possibly a hotel.
The park is on Oakland's sewer system, has fiber-optic cable, is right off Exit 130 of Interstate 95 and is in a Foreign Trade Zone. There are smooth, paved sidewalks lining its roads, even in the undeveloped west campus area. The lots are shovel-ready, Dinkle said.
Two large wooded lots at the northwest end that total nearly 50 acres are restricted to 13 buildable acres because of a vernal pond and other wet areas and would work well for multi-family housing.
The KRDA is marketing 13.6-acre Lot 13, which is at the intersection of the two main roads in the park and has six buildable acres, for $124,400.
He said several of the lots would be good for data centers, and he's had interest from that sector.
Of the original 22 lots, 16 are available, with two additional of the original 22 owned by L.L. Bean, which hasn't developed them. There is still 195 acres available, with lots ranging in size from 20.8 acres to 5.9.
Many of the 20 business in the park are in the lot where Gateway, KRDA, MaineGeneral and Oak River CPAs occupy one of the original buildings at the site, and on the adjacent one, where Waterville Community Dental's building shares space with three other small buildings that have medical practices or services.
T-Mobile and the MaineGeneral orthopedic center occupy the other developed lots.
Two of the three office condos at 25 FirstPark Drive, near the entrance, are for sale, totaling 6,600 square feet and listed for $698,500 by Coldwell Banker Plourde Real Estate in Waterville. It's the only empty building space on the site.
Listing prices for the 16 lots for sale range from $142,000 for a 13.9 acre lot with with 9.5 buildable acres to $59,000 each for the two lots that would be good for multi-family development.
Dinkle said the KRDA would also be willing to sell the entire campus to a developer, a big change from the original plan 21 years ago.
He wouldn't name a price, but the sum of the listing prices is $1.88 million.
He said, though, a developer couldn't buy it to use as a "land bank."
"We'd want development, we'd want job creation, we'd want a return on the investment for the partners," he said.
Dinkle's arrival also brought a more aggressive marketing and community focus. Recent efforts are a new website, a new marking plan in partnership with Marshall Communications, of Augusta, and more outreach.
For instance, FirstPark is a joining the sponsors of the One River CPAs 5k run and walk, which is in its 10th year, with a course through the park. The race benefits the Alfond Youth Center in Waterville. The organization hasn't been involved before.
Mindful of all the dog-walkers who take advantage of the park's winding, wooded roads and the increasing number of dog-friendly businesses — like Gateway Financial, which occupies the same building as FirstPark's management, and where the dogs have their own business cards — there's a plan to put a dog park on one of the handful of lots that are not big enough to develop. Dinkle is looking for a dog-products partner for that project, and said the dog park would be open to the public.
He's also been talking to the Messalonskee Trails organization about tying the trail that goes along nearby Messalonskee Stream into the site.
The sign at the entrance, on Kennedy Memorial Drive, is new, a striking granite sculpture. There's also been an eye to landscaping, which is done by Lynch's Landscaping, in Norridgewock.
Efforts to market the property also include old-fashioned advertising, like a quarter-page ad in the Colby Echo, the nearby college's newspaper, encouraging graduates to build their business at FirstPark. There's also a full-age ad in the Kennebec Explorer, published by the Kennebec Valley Tourism Council and aimed at out-of-staters, that encourages those who may come to Maine for vacations to also look at FirstPark as a business opportunity.
Dinkle also hits the road. This week he was at the Maine Real Estate and Development Assn. 2019 Spring Conference in Portland, attended by more than 300 real estate brokers and developers in the state. He's on his way to Boston next week.
He's also making sure the towns that invested in FirstPark are part of the process. Dinkle has visited 21 of the 24 towns that make up the KRDA. Despite that recession-era restlessness, none have pulled out.
"Between 2006 and 2013 we had one of the most serious recessions this country's ever seen," DInkle said. But he's assured towns, many of them small and from the more rural parts of Kennebec, Somerset and Franklin counties, that they'll see a return on their investment.
"I tell them, if you had not made that investment, we would not have a call center with 825 jobs in place," he said.
He points out, for instance, that the T-Mobile workers are not all from 6,000-resident Oakland.
He's not sure how many jobs the park supports now, but this summer plans to do a survey to find out, as well as average salary and where the workers are from.
Dinkle, who has had a long career in economic development in his native Kentucky, the Midwest and most recently Arizona, also used to work with brownfields, formerly toxic sites that have been cleaned up by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Sometimes, he said, a developer would look at a former brownfields site and say, "I don't have a vision."
"I'd tell them, 'Well, I have a vision,'" Dinkle said. He said while the end product may be different, "It's about having a vision."
"I can envision mixed-use here, or the campus being sold," he said. "I can envision a lot of things."