The Two Biddefords
For as long as anyone can remember, if they noticed at all, the former AFL-CIO headquarters was a dull, dingy building on a dull, dingy street in Biddeford, the hardscrabble Franco-American mill town that downtown renewal leapfrogged on its way up the southern Maine coast. Constructed in 1922 yet devoid of historical character, the concrete-block structure had a lumpy facade resembling a relief map drained of color. It was, in a sense, a reflection of downtown itself - down on its luck and resigned to it.
Then along came Tammy Ackerman and Russell Persson, a Reno, Nevada, couple on a cross-country road trip. "We came down Main Street and saw all the brick buildings and the giant factory walls," Ackerman, a graphic designer in her thirties, recalls of her first glimpse of Biddeford two years ago. "I was struck by all the vacancies, but the buildings were beautiful enough [for me] to see the potential."
Within months, Ackerman and Persson were settling in Biddeford as the new owners of the AFL-CIO building, which they have remodeled and coated in bright orange paint. "Look at me!" the hip-looking future art gallery now seems to proclaim. "I'm here!"
More stunning is the fact that the building still mirrors Biddeford. Since Ackerman and Persson first swung through town, a handful of other young entrepreneurs have spruced up properties and attracted tenants like cafes, a Pilates studio, even an aromatherapy pedicure salon - all welcome additions to a downtown whose secondhand stores are outnumbered only by empty storefronts. Meanwhile, hundreds of artists, musicians, and woodworkers have been quietly opening workspaces in the labyrinth of mills on the banks of the Saco River.
"I feel like we're on a frontier," says Chris Betjemann, an architect and developer who quit Portland for Biddeford, drawn by its Victorian urban fabric. He is restoring his third building, the 1870 Laconia Lodge on Alfred Street, home to newcomers Loose Moose Cafe and Wiggle Weigle Books. "We're coming at it from a design sense: by improving the urban context, the buildings themselves, we can make a difference to the city."
Contributing to this small yet significant shift in Biddeford's vibe are changes voters have imposed on City Hall. Biddeford's most effective, proactive and, dare we say, civil leadership in decades is greasing downtown's seized economic wheels, most notably through the formation of the Heart of Biddeford, a revitalization organization linked to the National Trust for Historic Preservation's highly effective Main Street Program. Led by a paid, full-time director, the public-private partnership is working on several fronts to attract patrons, tenants, and investors.
Does this mean Biddeford's long-awaited revitalization is at hand? "We're having more success than any other effort in the past," says Ken Putney, the Heart of Biddeford's vice president and a resident of the "other Biddeford," the breathtakingly beautiful oceanfront neighborhoods where the waves are as wild and frothy as city politics of the recent past. "You can't expect that just repairing the sidewalk or installing new streetlights are going to make a difference. That's what sets the Main Street Program apart. It's a community-wide effort that works over a period of time."
The Saco River ambles more than eighty miles through Maine before it reaches the York County cities of Biddeford and Saco, where it splits in two and tumbles through a half-mile red-brick canyon - the massive nineteenth-century textile mills of Biddeford and Saco Island that once employed as many as twelve thousand workers, mostly Quebecois immigrants.
After it passes beneath the Main Street bridge, the Saco is peaceful once more. This is the Saco River tidewater, a haven for striped bass fishermen. Two miles downstream is Meeting House Cove, site of Maine's busiest state boat launch, and, a mile or so farther, the 540-acre waterfront campus of the University of New England (UNE), which has grown from 330 to more than 3,000 students since it was founded in 1978.
The campus bumps up against Hills Beach, one of Biddeford's four coastal enclaves. Town and gown have, at times, made uneasy neighbors. While city leaders have championed the school's expansion, Hills Beachers, who must drive through the campus to reach their homes on a narrow peninsula, once sought to stop it. University of New England administrators have been skilled diplomats, hiring a community relations coordinator and appointing a Hills Beach Association member to their board of trustees. Tensions have eased. Then, too, UNE can't expand much more here. Last fall it considered establishing its new pharmacy college downtown in the Lincoln Mill, which would have dramatically advanced revitalization, but the school ultimately settled on its Portland campus, where there is room to grow.
More publicity has been given to the coastal communities' other beef: they pay 30 percent of the property taxes, yet, being largely seasonal, receive few services. Homeowners' frustrations peaked in the late nineties, when Biddeford Pool, Fortunes Rocks, and Granite Point attempted to secede. There's been fence-mending here, too. "Secession is pretty much off the table," says Lou Quenneville, president of the Coastal Coalition, which advocates for the neighborhoods at City Hall. "I haven't heard anyone talk about it for years. Since the last attempt, there have been efforts on the part of the city to address our concerns." High taxes, though, are a perpetual sore point, as is the absence of nearby fire and emergency facilities.
Six miles inland, near the Maine Turnpike, is evidence that Biddeford, population 20,942, is faring better than its reputation suggests. More than forty industries, employing 1,400 people, are doing business in four industrial parks. Southern Maine Medical Center, the city's largest employer with 1,100 employees, is expanding. And the Shops at Biddeford Crossing, York County's largest-ever commercial development with twenty-five stores and restaurants, opened last fall, raising hopes that the city can woo shoppers away from the Maine Mall thirteen miles to the north.
When the textile mills were at their peak, thousands of workers flooded Biddeford's streets during shift changes. "My parents say it was so crowded that you couldn't even walk on the sidewalks on Saturday night," says Renee O'Neill, business manager of City Theater. The gorgeous five-hundred-seat Victorian playhouse designed by Maine's revered architect, John Calvin Stevens, has been Main Street's lone bright spot for the past thirty years. "When I was little, we still had some stores - Butler's, Woolworth's, the Fisherman's - but it was the beginning of the end. The opening of the Maine Mall [in 1971] pretty much sealed downtown's fate. But it wasn't just that. What happens downtown is pretty much fueled by the people who live and work downtown. The mills were laying people off, and they were getting jobs elsewhere."
The malaise was echoed in Biddeford politics, variously described by observers as "colorful," "divisive," and "dysfunctional." Flaws in the city charter, such as liberal mayoral power and partisan primaries to nominate candidates for city offices (whoever won the Democratic primary, whether he leaned left or right, was practically guaranteed election), were exposed. There was, for example, Mayor Robert Farley's 1984 circumvention of a zoning board decision against construction of a massive trash incinerator downtown, regarded today as the single biggest obstacle to the city's rebirth. There was Mayor James Grattelo's 1995 veto of a negotiated teachers' pay raise, leading to a demor-alizing dispute that bounced from court to court for two years. There were controversial resignations and firings of city administrators. There was even a time when police were called to an unruly council meeting.
Finally, Biddeford voters had enough. They curtailed the mayor's power, did away with municipal primaries and, in 2003, turned their back on incumbents, electing four new city councilors and a new mayor, Wallace Nutting, a retired four-star general, former Biddeford Pool secessionist, and - gasp! - a Republican. Two years ago Nutting was returned to the mayor's office unopposed, heretofore unthinkable in passionately political Biddeford. "I got tired of hearing bad jokes about my hometown," Nutting says. "That's probably the main reason I said, 'I am going to run.' " He laughs. "I don't hear them anymore. Actually,
you hear fairly positive things about Biddeford."
At seventy-eight, Nutting is trim, fit, and handsome with chiseled features and closely cropped gray hair. He wears an American flag pin on his lapel and has a soldier's posture. A native of Saco, he married his high-school sweetheart, and they traveled the world with the U.S. Army before retiring to Biddeford Pool twenty-two years ago "when we could afford it," Nutting says. "We can't afford it anymore. We can see saltwater. If you can see water, salt or fresh, you pay for it."
Biddeford Pool's secession effort in 1997, which Nutting led, was less about property taxes than the city's perceived apathy toward the neighborhoods that were paying them. (Residents once complained to the state that the city was not adhering to its own environmental ordinances.) Moreover, the beach neighborhoods seemed removed from the city, with different concerns and needs. "In the past you did see a noticeable division between downtown and the coastal area," Nutting says. "I don't think that's unusual. A lot of the coastal residents were wealthy summer people. I'm not sure the two intermixed. But in recent years regular folks have tried to live at the beaches year-round, and there has been a conscious effort to recognize that we're all one community."
Nutting offers a similarly unifying view of Saco and Biddeford, sister cities that could not look more different. Tenements, once the homes of mill workers, surround Biddeford's red-brick downtown. The mill owners and managers built their large Victorians in Saco village, which leans toward traditional New England quaintness - with the exception of Saco Island. Last fall scores of supporters from both towns turned out for a hearing on developer Sam Spencer's plan to convert the island mill complex into a mixed-use campus with offices, retail shops, condominiums, and a marina. "I always tell people that Main Street lies on both sides of the Saco River," Nutting says. "What happens on one end is good for the other."
Operating under bankruptcy protection, blanket maker WestPoint Home is the last vestige of Biddeford's textile industry. "The manufacturing processes that were so successful here won't return," Nutting says, "but we have these 'pyramids.' " He gestures out the window of his third-floor office toward Lincoln Mill, kitty-corner from Biddeford City Hall. "They are magnificent resources. Although they appear benign, right now about half of the 1.5 million square feet of floor space is occupied. Biddeford is being referred to as the woodworking center of New England because of the high-end furniture being produced and shipped out of here. The whole notion of the development and potential of the creative economy is changing the way people think about investments."
Long before Chris Betjemann and Tammy Ackerman discovered Biddeford, Doug Sanford was buying and improving downtown properties. "I was not aware of the stigma," he says. Covering his mouth with his hand, he whispers "Biddeford!" with mock disdain. "The locals had the stigma. This community has been the biggest detriment to its own growth."
Now the developer is embarking on his biggest project yet, a reuse plan for three buildings comprising the 370,000-square-foot North Dam Mill. Sanford envisions an integrated community with loft apartments, retail and office units, artist and light industrial workspaces, restaurants, and a fitness center. He imagines commuters walking or riding a water taxi to the Amtrak station on nearby Saco Island. Main Street Maine was impressed enough to name him Visionary of the Year last fall.
With the project still in the concept stage, Sanford is scrambling to keep up with demand for space. He has about thirty tenants, mostly small businesses with a creative focus, such as an upscale lamp and shade maker, dance and martial arts studios, several woodworkers, even a truffle importer. As he describes his plans, Sanford cannot contain his excitement, dipping and stepping like a flat-footed Baryshnikov. "Look, it's gorgeous!" he says, gazing out an enormous window directly above the roiling Saco. "It's open ocean from here. Manchester, Lawrence, Lowell - great places, great rivers - but you can't get to the ocean. We can get to the ocean. I mean, how huge is that?"
With development trends shifting from suburbs to town centers, Sanford believes Biddeford is ripe for investment because it is one of the few ungentrifed communities remaining on the southern Maine coast. "I see this as the last frontier," he says, echoing Chris Betjemann.
Sanford's youthful counterparts were drawn to Biddeford for precisely the urban-style living he describes. Betjemann lives on Main Street; he walks to work. Likewise, his partner, Kim Roseberry, resides across the street from her employer, in what was once widely regarded as the ugliest building in town. No more. Roseberry stripped off the Exorcist-green plywood and found brick with traces of Carrara Glass. She resurfaced the facade with marble panels, creating a sleek, contemporary take on the original. "We're upping the ante for some of the other landlords," she says. "Commercial space is a very difficult rent in this town. You have to be a little adventurous because business has been bad for so long. By giving people nice spaces, we're attracting the kind of businesses that are going to help this town grow."
The new entrepreneurs are well aware that their task really amounts to rebuilding a community's self-esteem. Architect and Historic Preservation Commission member Caleb Johnson illustrates the enormity of the challenge with an anecdote about a longtime property owner who rejected the board's recommendation of quality materials on his building's exterior. "This is an ugly city," Johnson quotes the man. "It's full of poor people. I'm not putting anything into this city that isn't vinyl. It's a waste of money." Johnson was taken aback, but only because the message was so blatant; the sentiment, he finds, is all too common. Still, he is not discouraged. "This is the time that Biddeford is going to crack the stereotype," he believes.
Johnson, who hails from the Midwest, moved to Biddeford a few years ago when his wife enrolled at UNE. "We drove into downtown Biddeford and I loved it," he says. "Then we drove out to Biddeford Pool, and there were surfers sitting out on the swells. That clinched it for me."
Yes, downtown's low-income neighborhoods lack the economic and cultural diversity that makes healthy cities, Johnson concedes, and yes, too few businesses stay open after 8 p.m., contributing to the sense that Biddeford is best avoided at night. But he has his own house here and his own architectural firm, something he could never have accomplished by age thirty in Portland. He is here for the long haul. "I'm not going anywhere," he says.
Biddeford has other challenges, not least of which are those "pyramids," which must be brought up to modern safety code standards as they are redeveloped. A February fire in the basement of Steven Sobol's Riverdam Millyard, home to numerous small businesses including sixty rock bands sharing twenty-five rehearsal studios, underscored just how massive that task is.
And then there is the Maine Energy Recovery Company (MERC) trash incinerator. In 2005, voters in the sister cities rejected a proposal to buy and close the smelly plant. Saco has since contracted to send its trash elsewhere, a decision MERC opponents are pressing Biddeford to make as well. "I am not an advocate of having a trash incinerator in a town that has so much potential," Tammy Ackerman says. "It doesn't fit the direction the town wants to go." The problem is, withdrawal of Biddeford's business would not shut down the facility, leaving the city with little leverage.
MERC or no MERC, Biddeford does appear to have an unprecedented opportunity to acquire the prosperity that has graced communities all around it. "The hardest part is behind us," Chris Betjemann believes. "Look at the quality of the people who are here. They're people who could hold their own anywhere. There's tremendous talent and a positive energy here."
Take a walk up Main Street, where a smattering of renovations are under way, and you can almost hear it: Look at me, Biddeford seems to be saying, I'm here.