A New Day
There's no missing the Grand Victorian, the condominium hotel Tim Swenson completed last October in Old Orchard Beach. It stands at the town's epicenter, a beachfront lot at the foot of the Pier and across Old Orchard Street from the Palace Playland amusement park. By Old Orchard standards it's enormous: five stories high and 126,000 square feet, with retail shops on the street and 48 luxury condominiums above that have sold for between $300,000 and $500,000 apiece.
The twenty-million-dollar complex is the most ambitious development the town has seen in decades.Depending on whom you talk to, it's either a harbinger of renewal and revitalization or the first step of an effort to transform the honky-tonk beach town into an exclusive residential community for yuppie commuters and active retirees.
"There's no doubt about it, Old Orchard is standing at a Y in the road," Swenson says, looking out at the crashing surf and the amusement park roller coasters from the balcony of one of the complex's third-floor units. "There are people who want to keep the town the way it is, and others who want to take it to the next level, which is what I'm trying to do."
On a coast dotted with tasteful, quaint summer resorts, Old Orchard is an anomaly: a brazen beachside carnival geared toward working-class families. It's a place where you can swim, sunbathe, play air hockey, ride the Ferris wheel, buy garish T-shirts, tattoo your skin, stuff yourself full of fried dough and cotton candy, and quench your thirst with cheap pitchers of beer without ever having to change out of your bathing suit. Kids are never bored, teenagers have room to hang, and the bars are open late.
Until last summer, the block at the corner of East Grand Avenue and Old Orchard Street was occupied by Village Park, a warren-like arcade featuring games of chance, kiddie rides, and other amusements; the Krazy Klam, a beachside patio bar featuring live bands without a cover charge; and a faux pink lighthouse. All three have been bulldozed and replaced by the Grand Victorian, whose balconies, gables, and clock tower are modeled after the elegant Hotel Velvet, which stood on the site from 1899 to 1907. If things go as planned, this summer the ground floors will house an art gallery, a coffeehouse, and an upscale toy store.
"Our demographics are changing," says town manager Jim Thomas. "The retirees are coming, and there are young professionals — two-income couples with no children — who see that Old Orchard Beach is right on the outskirts of Portland and has a beautiful beach."
"We're trying to bring quality businesses and quality residents to Old Orchard," adds Thomas, who was born in Lewiston and has managed towns in Wisconsin, Illinois, Colorado, and Utah. "If you spend four hundred thousand dollars for a condo and you are a two-income family or retiree, you are not going to be disorderly and fighting with your wife. You are an asset, not a liability."
"I see us continuing to redevelop, to take down old structures and replace them with new," he concludes. "Our future is very bright."
Tim Swenson, 41, was born and raised in Old Orchard, the grandson of the town's leading builder in the 1960s and 1970s. He worked summer jobs at the amusement park and, after graduating from Old Orchard High School in 1983, at the town's bars and restaurants. He was one of the original owners of the Krazy Klam back in the 1980s and, by his own account, was part of the barroom scene. Now he's become the driving force behind efforts to reinvent and reinvigorate his hometown.
He's full of ideas, including a new pier, three times the length of the current one, capable of handling yachts and small cruise ships, and an eight-story, fifty-million-dollar hotel straddling the train tracks two blocks north of the Grand Victorian. Since 2001, his company has built more than 150 condominium units in town, including 44 alongside the Dunegrass Golf Course. He's had offers to build projects elsewhere in New England, but he's turned them down to focus on downtown Old Orchard.
Swenson envisions a safer, cleaner, more family-oriented town, with more shopping and entertainment options, and a season lasting five months instead of three. "Obviously we want people to be able to walk down the street or down the beach with their family and not bump into some guy who wants to get into a fight," he says. Party-hearty bars would make way for restaurants, clothing boutiques would crop up among the T-shirt shops, and, if one wanted, one could watch ingredients for gourmet ice cream rolled out over a frozen granite counter top, not just injected into the cone from a soft-serve machine.
"Old Orchard will always be Old Orchard, but it was once a grand place, the place to be," Swenson says. "It will never be exactly like it was way back when, but we can make it similar, so that those families that once came here start to come back."
It's the beach that first attracted people to Saco Bay. Seven miles long, crescent-shaped, and consisting of fine white sand, it is the longest, widest, and arguably finest beach on the Maine coast. When, in the late nineteenth century, America's affluent began looking for places they could go to escape the heat, disease, and pollution of the newly industrialized cities, it didn't take them long to find the beach.
The summer pioneers came by rail. First came the Quebecois, introduced to the beach in the 1850s, not long after the Grand Trunk Railway linked Montreal with Portland, stopping en route at Saco, of which Old Orchard was then a part. New England's elite followed with the Boston & Maine, which built a depot in the middle of the village, a few blocks from the beach. "Prior to that we were just a small farming community like many others in Maine," says town historian Dan Blaney. "That depot turned Old Orchard into the tourist mecca of Maine practically overnight."
Within a few seasons, the trains were disgorging visitors by the thousands. Each spring, new boarding houses sprang up like toadstools, and were soon accompanied by ever-larger hotels, eateries, and places of entertainment. In July and August, the hamlet named for an earlier settler's apple orchard was the grandest, loudest, and wildest resort in the state. By 1887, a correspondent for the New York Times sniffed that the town was "becoming somewhat too suggestive of the western part of Coney Island."
"Old Orchard might be called an overgrown railway station with a Fourth of July annex," agreed Samuel Adams Drake in The Pine Tree Coast, an 1890 travel guide for the summering classes. A "typical watering place for those who detest the name of solitude," it "has the appearance of having sprung up in a night . . . Shops, cafés, booths, fruit stands, shooting-galleries, bazaars without end, crowd together in interminable rows. Everyone is busily employed in catering to the wants of the army of travelers, who have come here to divert themselves, and who demand to be diverted."
Then, as now, the raucous merrymakers in the downtown coexisted uneasily with the more pastoral summer neighborhoods on either side. Most prominent was the religious summer community: thousands of pious men and women who gathered in great campgrounds at the edge of town to attend meetings sponsored by the Methodists, the Women's Christian Temperance Union, and the Salvation Army. The latter still conducts camp meetings each summer in the Ocean Park neighborhood, within earshot of the screaming passengers on the Palace Playland roller coaster.
This being Maine, most everything was built of wood, and fire was a constant threat. Several hotels burned in August 1882, the guests jumping from third- story windows to escape the flames. The Hotel Velvet and sixteen other hotels were consumed in the great fire of 1907, surprising no one. The Velvet was "a structure sooner or later destined to make a spectacular fire," the Biddeford Journal reported at the time. "The peculiarity of its construction, which was showy rather than substantial, insured its certain and rapid combustion." Devastating fires followed in 1922, 1948, 1958, 1969, and 1972.
After each fire, Old Orchard rebuilt and reinvented itself, always with an eye to spectacle. In the 1920s the beach attracted early transatlantic aviators, including Charles Lindbergh and Igor Sikorsky, it being the easternmost "airstrip" in the country. Daring motorists raced cars on the beach while Count Basie, Cab Calloway, and Duke Ellington played in the Casino that once stood at the far end of Old Orchard's 1,200-foot-long pier.
By the late seventies, the summer scene was becoming identified with public drunkenness and brawls, a reputation cemented by a number of alcohol-fueled riots in the 1980s. "There were a lot of bars and a lot of drinking, and after the riots, people felt like things had gotten way too crazy," Blaney recalls. Public drinking ordinances and open container laws dampened the excesses, and in 1996 the cover of the town's annual report declared: "The Families are Back."
Over the past decade, family vacationers have indeed returned, and they're the ones the town should cater to, says Joe Mokarzel, a lifelong town resident who owns the Atlantis and Sea Drift motels. "I deal with thousands of visitors in the summertime, and people say [the town is] losing its character," he says. "These hotel condominium projects will help enrich two people, and in the process it will endanger the jobs of thousands of people who rely on Old Orchard as we know it. I don't want to see us go the route of Salisbury Beach and Revere Beach and Hampton Beach, which have lost their identity as a family-oriented beach and just become Condovilles."
The two visions, he argues, are not compatible. The Grand Victorian will put the most popular part of the beach in shadow during summer afternoons, he claims, and casts a pall over the carnival-like atmosphere that sustains Palace Playland, a major magnet for family vacationers. "We're a family, blue-collar beach, and I get very upset when I hear they want to upgrade our clientele," he adds. "I think the clientele we have here are great."
Such fears are not unfounded, says the owner of Palace Playland, Joel Golder. His is now the last seaside amusement park in New England, its counterparts in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island having been knocked down to make way for condo developments. "The pattern is the same: a big project comes along like the Grand Victorian, and your real estate taxes shoot right up," he says. "When you only operate about eighty-eight days a year, it really takes a hit on your bottom line.
"Attractions tend to cluster around each other, just as car dealers and fast-food outlets do," he says. "Now, instead of having amusements across the street from us, we have something very different. If it keeps going in this direction, there could come a point when. . . . "
Jerome G. Plante, who served as town manager here from 1975 to 1990, says he hopes the town can strike a balance for the sake of its year-round residents, who would like to have a community that remains vital for more than a few months a year. He says those living in outlying residential sections of town are sometimes at loggerheads with the tourism-oriented downtown business owners, many of whom live elsewhere in the off-season. The group's interests are not always the same, he says, but they have been held together by mutual need: for supplemental income on one side, seasonal labor on the other.
New developments could be a windfall for this other Old Orchard. "If we use resources from these changes to benefit our schools, libraries, and public infrastructure, then what is there to dislike?" he says.
"If it's balanced properly then the people who are in the middle income and lower will be able to live in town," he adds. "We just have to be careful that it doesn't become exclusively for the rich and the well-born."