Want to Be Part of Sustainable Develoment? Go to Biddeford, Maine

Biddeford, Maine. Never heard of it? Well, I guess that’s not surprising, it’s a town of only 22,000, 15 miles south of Portland, Maine. But it is one of the oldest towns in New England, with the first sawmill having been built there over 350 years ago.
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Biddeford was a textile town, at its peak having over 12,000 workers in the textile mills there. But during the 20th Century most of the textile plants relocated to the Carolinas and Georgia. (As an aside, I often like to point out that self-serving politicians like John Edwards whine about the loss of textile jobs to the Caribbean, Africa and East Asia as if those jobs were some god-given right for North Carolinians. But they disingenuously ignore, in fact, that those jobs were stolen by North and South Carolina from New England less than a century ago.)

Anyway today there are only around 200 textile jobs still in Biddeford. But what still exist are 2.5 million square feet of well built mill buildings, a century or more old. Buildings, yes, but a public sector and some progressive, enlightened developers seeing the 19th century built heritage of Biddeford accommodating the residential, commercial and industrial needs of the 21st century.
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There are simultaneous activities taking place among several developers, including a $100,000,000 adaptive reuse, mixed use project in mill buildings right across the river in the adjacent town of Saco. But two projects at different stages of development will serve as examples.

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The Riverdam Mill project is being advanced by SpencerMonksDevelopment of Portland. SpencerMonks has acquired a 2 year option on the 160,000 square foot property for redevelopment into a variety of uses. They’ve done a great job of identifying the multiple sources of financing that will be required to make this deal fly. It will be neither quick nor easy, but they seem to recognize that and they have a realistic sense of the particular challenges and obsticles to this type of development.

But here’s what most impressed me about their information packet. Instead of citing such imaginary competitive advantages as “low taxes” or “cheap labor” or “the latest high tech gizmos available”, they have a different set of arguments why the redevelopment of Riverdam makes sense: job creation, affordable housing, smart growth, historic preservation, downtown revitalization, green development, brownfield redevelopment. In short, while they are certainly in the deal to make money (as well they should be) they have positioned their project to have significant benefits beyond their own pocketbooks. And they have recognized that Riverdam isn’t a stand-alone project but one more incremental component of a broader effort.

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The second project is a little more downstream, so to speak. The North Dam Mill development is currently wrapping up their first phase and moving on to Phase II. The North Dam Mill, is actually a complex of three former textile mill buildings totaling nearly 400,000 square feet. Already completed in Phase I are 60,000 square feet of retail, commercial, studio and industrial space. The first phase started in late 2005 and currently houses some 40 small businesses including several retail shops, a coffeehouse, studios for photographers and artists, a print shop, a dance studio and others.

This project has solidly positioned itself as the venue of choice for the creative economy activities of the 21st Century. They are also in ongoing negotiations with fast growing University of New England, both for student and faculty housing but also for direct University activities. There are several great models for college facilities being located in former mill and industrial buildings, by the way. Two of my favorites are the University of New Hampshire – Manchester and the University of Washington – Tacoma. In both cases university leadership was sufficiently enlightened to understand that those underutilized buildings and college activities were a natural fit. And students always add vibrancy and excitement to an area.

The development team at the North Dam Mill has wisely left unspecified exactly when Phase III of their project will begin. That allows the market to adjust, for lessons to be learned from earlier phases, and for risk mitigation as the project moves forward. The three big mistakes that preservationists often make with these kind of buildings is “We have to do it all; we have to do it now; we have to do it on this preconceived use.” Doing it in phases is the prudent way to approach these projects and that’s what the North Dam Mill people are doing.

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So these are both enlightened private sector development groups. But as I’m sure both would tell you, they would not have a chance to be successful were it not for strong support from and assistance of the City. Currently underway is a Mill District Master Plan and consideration for both a tax increment financing district (TIF) and a National Register Historic District.

This is a great example of Smart Growth. The existing vacant space in mill buildings in Biddeford can probably accommodate all of the economic and residential growth for the next two decades…all without consuming a single acre of additional land at the periphery. And reusing buildings – the ultimate in recycling – is far more environmentally responsible than just adding some solar panels to a new crappy building in Sprawlsville.

In the sometimes arcane world of international, academic historic preservation conferences, there are often sessions on the “spirit of place” and not infrequently papers delivered arguing that adaptive reuse like is taking place in Biddeford represents the destruction of the “spirit of place”. What absolute nonsense! I heard the Mayor of Biddeford, Joanne Twomey, talk about what is happening in her community. She said that her grandmother, a French-Canadian, migrated to work in the mills in Biddeford, and so she certainly was aware of the character and quality of the “spirit of place” of those mills in the textile days. But Mayor Twomey’s pride and excitement over what today is happening absolutely reflects a new “sense of place” perfectly appropriate for that town and those buildings.

So go to Biddeford for a visit or to invest or maybe as a great place to relocate (at VERY affordable rents) your “creative economy” business. And I’m sure that Rachael Weyand, executive director of Heart of Biddeford, the local Main Street program, will be happy to help you. Oh, your firm is in Boston you say? No problem. A new Amtrak station is being completed in the midst of the mill building redevelopment…so walk to the train and ride the 90 miles to Beantown.

The textile industry has largely abandoned Biddeford and towns like it for cheaper labor elsewhere. But the built legacy of those industries still stands and is calling for adaptive reuse in the 21st century. Smart cities and investors are answering that call.