2017-09-14 / Editorial

Ask me about Biddeford’s mills

Legislative Lowdown
by Rep. Martin Grohman

The resurgence of the mill district of Biddeford has been nothing short of remarkable. The last operating textile mill, making the famous Vellux hotel blanket, closed in 2009. However, the heritage of the Biddeford name in textiles is still strong. In fact, you can still buy an electric blanket branded “Biddeford Blankets” right here at our local Wal- Mart and Kohl’s. However, these are made overseas and managed by a company in Illinois.

It would be sad if the story ended there. Fortunately, it doesn’t. Many of the buildings in our mill district have been redeveloped and repurposed for other uses – residential, commercial and industrial. There are several major developers building out space, led by Doug Sanford’s Pepperell Mill Campus and North Dam Mill, who has been working in Biddeford for almost 40 years and has built out custom spaces for almost any type of business; and Nathan Szanton Co., which has developed a large number of market rate, as well as affordable housing apartments.

It’s a large area, about 40 acres on the Biddeford side, and some of the buildings are more than 500 feet long. That means it can be hard to find your way around. I’ve had an office in the North Dam Mill since 2007 and I still get lost sometimes. The builders have worked hard on way finding and signs but you would not be alone if you find the area intimidating. You can think of it like a college campus in its layout, with many complementary buildings located in a large area together, and it’s well worth taking a look around.

Here’s what I suggest: park at 2 Main St., where the big lighted brick smokestack is. Heading in there gives you the best access to the largest number of retail businesses. You’ll be in Building 17, one of the first to be redeveloped. Wander the halls and be amazed at all that is happening. In fact, there are more than 130 businesses located here, everything from custom framing shops to violin makers and auction houses, and more than 550,000 square feet has been built out. That’s about the size of five Target stores. Plus, on the upper floors, there are more than 100 apartments and 600 people either live or work on campus.

For a guided tour, contact the Biddeford Mills Museum, where an experienced guide will take you into the ingenious system of water tunnels that powered the mills before electricity. The mill developers are to be commended for preserving this history.

There’s more building in the works. The formula that seems to be working is the easy commute to Boston on the Downeaster, good internet access, proximity to the ocean and countryside, interesting people and good food. Master plan approvals are in place for the development of much of the remaining vacant mill space, including lots more office and residential development. However, development has not been without its challenges. Parking is a perennial problem, particularly in winter. Going back to my Target store analogy, most large retail or office locations have one parking space per 250 square feet of developed area. Here, the ratio is much lower. There are no acres of parking lot in these cozy downtown locations, which gives it more of a Boston feel but will ultimately hamstring development. Still, developers tell me that given a stable economy, they think all the vacant space here will be occupied within four to five years. That’s remarkable. That’s a greater level of use and occupancy in a former downtown mill district than any other city in Maine, and is something to be very, very proud of.

At the state level, we have work to do to build out the financial incentives that will develop more affordable housing, likely via bonding. There are also some statutory changes needed to ease street access. I’ll be looking ahead to the next legislative session to work on those changes, but in the meantime, I hope you’ll visit the mills district – I’d be happy to show you around.

Rep. Martin Grohman of Biddeford is serving his second term in the Maine Legislature and is a member of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. Outside the legislature, he is chair of the Biddeford Solid Waste Commission. Marty also hosts a podcast for Maine entrepreneurs called The Grow Maine Show, available on Apple Podcasts. Sign up for legislative updates at www.growmaine.com or facebook.com/repgrohman.

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