For years – even lifetimes – the thing most commonly associated with Westbrook was Sappi Paper and the odor that permeated the city from the papermaking process.
It gave Westbrook a reputation as the place you’d look for a home when you couldn’t find or afford anything in Portland, South Portland, Falmouth, or any other surrounding community. It was where you’d start a business if you couldn’t afford Portland leases. It was rarely a place you would go for a night out.
But today Westbrook is a long way from the afterthought it once was.
While it may be most widely known now for the occasional ice disk, a Twitter-happy giant python still on the lam, Market Basket, and Chick-Fil-A, the old mill city has become something pessimists never would have imagined: a hot spot for development and one of Maine’s fastest-growing communities with more than 20,000 residents and 800 businesses.
But becoming a destination doesn’t happen overnight. And it doesn’t happen by accident, either.
It’s not Portland
Daniel Stevenson, Westbrook’s economic development director, said he had a deliberate vision for the city, guided by the beliefs that you can’t just say you’re great, and that the private sector invests in communities that invest in themselves.
“We’ve been very thoughtful in how we invest and attract private investment,” Stevenson said. “Economic development means a lot of different things to a lot of different people.”
Westbrook’s resurgence happened with help from a problem facing neighboring Portland: Skyrocketing rents.
Or as Amy Grommes Pulaski, executive director of Discover Downtown Westbrook, said, what makes Westbrook so appealing for new businesses now is the thing that was held against it: it’s not Portland.
“Portland, it’s just not as accessible or affordable anymore,” Pulaski said. “I think a lot of individuals and families and businesses are looking for what’s next. Because (Westbrook) is a good option for a lot of people.”
Westbrook presents itself as a different market, she said, but with some common benefits. It’s highly visible, and Route 25 acts as a thoroughfare connecting Gorham and beyond to Portland, meaning a lot of traffic comes through daily.
“I think there’s a lot of opportunity for development, just like in Portland when people thought it was already saturated, but people kept coming,” Pulaski said. “When there’s opportunity, it finds a way.”
Stevenson, a Westbrook native, said there was a concerted effort made to transform Westbrook into a destination, and that required work – specifically investments to create places and spaces that would attract people.
He said success will depend on the viability of three specific projects in the next three to five years: downtown redevelopment around Westbrook Commons, redeveloping the riverwalk, and Rock Row.
Located along the Presumpscot River, Westbrook’s downtown isn’t a bustling center like Portland’s Old Port, but it’s also not a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it speed bump.
Heather Chandler, president of Discover Downtown Westbrook, said her organization works with the city to promote growth and revitalize the downtown. The group is part of Main Street America, which prioritizes businesses and arts events in the community.
Chandler, who has lived in Westbrook since 2005, said she has seen many changes in the city since she moved there from Portland’s East End.
“Most recently it’s really been in our downtown, with an increase in the diversification of our businesses,” she said. “Breweries have moved in, new restaurants have moved in, coffee shops, a consignment store. … It’s exciting to see as a resident and a downtown organization.”
Chandler said the riverwalk – a bike and pedestrian path that follows the banks of the Presumpscot River – has also become an attraction.
Stevenson said Westbrook Commons, the downtown development, has become an attractive option for cultural events and community programs.
Chandler said these events, such as summer concerts in the parks, help bring people downtown and “really build the buzz and open people’s eyes.”
New life for old mills
One element that’s impossible to overlook in Westbrook is the presence of the mills.
While the Sappi mill is still in business, the Dana Warp Mill on Bridge Street has joined the ranks of other former mills in cities like Waterville and Biddeford: transformed into commercial and community space.
John Fanning, Dana Warp property manager, said repurposed mills create jobs and bring creators to a place. They allow a variety of uses, often by artists and other crafts workers, and offer unique settings, architectural elements like high ceilings, brick walls, and infrastructure suited for machinery.
Tenants of the Dana Warp, which is owned by Chinburg, a New Hampshire company that owns several mills in New England, include Vena’s Fizz House making bitters and mushroom grower North Spore.
Fanning said he hears from the tenants of the mill that the city around them is becoming a place where they want to do business and spend time. And he said that attitude will continue as more people are priced out of Portland, both in terms of starting a business and living there, especially for creative people.
He said he saw the same thing happen in the East Village in New York City decades ago: a place becomes gentrified, and people move to less-expensive areas they find aesthetically pleasing.
Westbrook, Fanning said, fits that bill. And as Portland real estate prices continue to rise, he said more and more people will look at places like Westbrook. That’s already happening in Biddeford, which is drawing people because they want to be there.
“As Biddeford gets eaten up, Westbrook is next,” Fanning said. “Biddeford can only service so much. As the population grows, the intensity of services has to grow. The people who work here have to be able to get a sandwich.”
Fanning said he’s confident Westbrook’s old reputation will eventually be gone, although it takes time.
“When you’re in it you only see the negative because that’s what’s ingrained,” he said. “It gets a bad reputation. It won’t be long when Westbrook gets to that point (of losing its reputation). It’s population growth.”
Steve Corman’s business, Vena’s Fizz House, has been a Dana Warp tenant since 2015 – although he admits most people probably don’t realize the business is there.
Corman said he needed space to produce products like bitters and the mill space was nearby and affordable. He also had access to a freight elevator, which made it easy to move pallets of products and ingredients.
“If we weren’t happy, we would have left,” Corman said. Instead, he’s hoping to expand.
While initially just a production site for his Old Port bar, Corman said the Westbrook location has become the primary focus of his business. He rents three different spaces in the mill and is on the lookout for more.
After closing the Old Port bar, Corman is now preparing a new Portland bar in a former church on Congress Street near St. John Street. But his focus remains on Westbrook, where Corman has no plan to slow production.
“As long as the Dana Warp Mill has space, we’ll stay here forever,” he said.
‘We didn’t have a coffee shop’
James Tranchemontagne has had a front-row seat for how Westbrook has changed. He believes he had a hand in helping make Westbrook a more attractive destination for businesses and development.
Tranchemontagne, who owns the Frog & Turtle gastropub at 3 Vallee Square (formerly Bridge Street), said he came to Westbrook about 15 years ago. He wanted to get out of Portland at the time because he believed the market there was already oversaturated.
He said his journey to Westbrook was “one of those cool coincidences where you took a gamble” to secure a location downtown. He said it was his success in downtown Westbrook that led other businesses to the city and a revamped downtown.
“You went from a downtown that was one-third full to zero vacancies now,” he said.
Tranchemontagne said the city’s effort to put in better apartment buildings, especially downtown, led to an increased population of younger people who want restaurants, bars, and shops to go to – people who can’t afford Portland prices but still want some of the same offerings.
“For years we didn’t have a coffee shop, now we have four,” he said. “We didn’t have bookshops, now we have that. Now we have restaurants. Before we had a mom-and-pop pizza place feel, now we have Thai restaurants, Italian, pubs, local watering holes, music venues.”
Tranchemontagne credits the city for hiring Stevenson and Mayor Michael Foley for prioritizing the kind of development that has been occurring in Westbrook. Programs such as matching funding for facade restoration helped create a better-looking downtown, he said.
When he first came to Westbrook, Tranchemontagne said, the city wanted “the big 400-employee business that weren’t coming to Maine” and would ignore businesses that were already there. Over time, that sentiment changed, and the city has become a better destination because of it, he said.
“The nice thing about Westbrook is it’s a blueprint for everything …” he said. “With the exception of a few areas, it gives you a chance to build new things and figure out a nice way to redesign a city and fix errors of the past.”
Mayor Foley said the effort to turn Westbrook around goes back 20 years and the effects of the city investing in itself are easy to see.
“We’ve grown significantly as a community,” he said. “In the last census, we grew by 4,000 people. We’ve called ourselves Maine’s fastest-growing community. … Residentially and economically we’re growing significantly.”
The downtown has become an area that went from an “eight- to 12-hour” area to now being a “20-hour downtown” where people live, work, and play, the mayor said.
A planned vertical harvest greenhouse is expected to add to that, with 60 additional units of housing plus a parking garage to allow more people to park and use the area, along with other surface-level areas ready for redevelopment.
Foley and Stevenson said Westbrook has become a player in addressing Maine’s housing shortage by encouraging projects in the city. The city has partnered with public- and private-sector groups to build affordable and senior housing and has at least four different affordable housing tax increment financing districts. A downtown overlay district allows more density, so new projects can include housing components to help offset the costs of construction and address the housing need.
Foley said he anticipates the city will add 2,000 units of housing in the next three years. He said people want to live where things are prospering, and new developments like the downtown greenhouse and Rock Row are evidence of Westbrook’s prosperity.
“We want to be in a situation where all ships rise together,” he said. “It’s huge to be able to attract these types of development.”
The most obvious example of what’s going in Westbrook is Rock Row, a nascent mixed-use development on 26 acres accessible from Brighton Avenue from Portland. It’s already home to the area’s first Chick-Fil-A and Market Basket, and the long-term vision includes hotels, a convention center, concert space, a medical office campus, and more.
At a cost of nearly $700 million, Stevenson, the economic development director, said Rock Row is the largest mixed-use development in Maine. He said a development like this will bring people to the city, by creating 5,000 jobs and attracting 6 million visitors annually when buildout is complete.
Greg John, chief market officer for Rock Row owner Waterstone Properties, said when they first visited the quarry and adjacent land in 2016, “we were completely enamored by the hidden gem” and quickly realized the property was a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
When Waterstone acquired the property, John said, it was planned and permitted for a big-box retailer and would have been covered in blacktop for parking with the quarry hidden and inaccessible.
Five years later, he said, the quarry remains the hub of the development, although revisions to the overall project have been made over time in “response to market needs.”
The project previously included an outdoor concert venue, the Maine Savings Pavillion, that accommodated more than 8,000 audience members. But it drew the ire of neighboring Portland residents who claimed the sound was too loud, and the venue ceased operations last September.
“We are adding more residential and office space to our original plan and have started construction on our spectacular medical and research campus,” John said. “But all these revisions support our original plan to create a destination location for everyone who works, lives, or visits the area. That will never change.”
Mayor Foley said all the activity around the city has created an environment where businesses come, and people follow. And success begets success, he said: If a small business outgrows space in a mill, for example, the city is primed to keep it and help it grow.
“Westbook has changed significantly,” Foley said, “but it’s still a tight-knit community of hard-working people. Being Maine’s fastest-growing city has helped to put us on a map and help display a positive message.”
A Vertical Harvest grows in Westbrook
While the biggest and brightest example of development in Westbrook is Rock Row, a large-scale development planned on the other side of the city has officials just as excited: Vertical Harvest Farms.
The 70,000-square-foot, five-story hydroponic farm will grow microgreens and lettuces on Mechanic Street and is expected to produce one million pounds of produce per year. The output will be sold to companies including Hannaford and Native Maine.
Caroline Croft Estay, Vertical Harvest co-founder and chief potential officer, said the company’s flagship farm, in the center of Jackson, Wyoming, created a “deeper connection with our community and their needs,” as well as pride in where their food is made and a direct connection between employees and customers.
“We are excited to come to Maine because we know that Mainers and the agriculture and food community here already value that kind of connection,” Estay said.
Daniel Stevenson, Westbrook’s economic development director, said the project will cost “tens of millions” of dollars and will be built behind the CVS parking lot. He said it will be a “world-class” vertical farm, which essentially means growing crops year-round in vertically stacked layers.
Stevenson said the project is important not only for the food it will produce but for the 50 full-time jobs the company plans to create.
Groundbreaking is slated to take place March 8 with the opening planned in fall 2023.
Stevenson said the project will incorporate a 370-space city parking garage with 60 units of affordable housing and 7,000 square feet of retail space. Stevenson said the city is in talks with various tenants, and the hope is to have a local market.
Additionally, once the farm and parking are operating, Stevenson said he wants to work with property owners on Main Street to bring a “boutique hotel” to the downtown. He said the capacity that the parking garage will create will help accommodate the hotel.
— Colin Ellis