On Thursday, January 21, over 500 of Maine’s real estate and development professionals gathered virtually to learn about the latest insights on the real estate economy at the Maine Real Estate & Development Association’s (MEREDA’s) annual Forecast Conference and Member Showcase. “This is an event people look forward to every January. You learn a lot and you make important connections. This year, we connected in new ways and heard about the incredible work that is being done throughout our state to move Maine forward, and to begin to recover from the pandemic economy,” says Josh Fifield, MEREDA President.
From James Marple, a Senior Economist at TD Bank who provided an economic outlook; to Hannah Pingree, Director of the Governor’s Office of Policy Innovation and the Future who spoke about the Maine Climate Council; to an impressive lineup of industry leaders; speakers were brought together for a virtual conference produced at O’Maine studios following Covid safety protocols. MEREDA streamed the conference with hosts Shannon Richards of Hay Runner and Craig Young of The Boulos Company providing commentary and connectivity throughout the day.
Reflecting on a challenging year, presenters were tasked with looking ahead and reporting on the trends impacting their sectors. In navigating the uncertainty of our current times, it seemed everyone was looking for bright spots. Perhaps one of the hardest hit sectors in Maine has been the hospitality industry. Sean Riley of the Maine Course Hospitality Group spoke about how they’ve had to adapt this past year, providing rooms for medical professionals and extended stay options for construction workers. While it has been a devastating year, Riley predicts that Maine hotels will rebound faster than the projected 5-year national recovery scenario laid out by Smith Travel Research. “Everybody is tired of staying home. We think Maine is teed-up big time.” With optimism and heart at the center of his presentation, Riley ended by encouraging collaboration and camaraderie: “We have to spend our time lifting each other up.”
Reporting on the retail industry, another sector hard hit by the pandemic, Peter Harrington of Malone Commercial Brokers outlined some of the surprise success stories in retail: from hardware stores to take-out restaurants to athleisure-wear retailers to furniture companies. While Maine will likely continue to feel impacts of the pandemic through 2021, Harrington saw hope for brick-and-mortar retail to rebound: “We haven’t evolved to be people who sit at home in isolation. We need physical connection to each other and many of the products we use.”
On the other side of the spectrum was the residential real estate market, which had an incredible year. Dava Davin of the Portside Real Estate Group reported a record 13.8% increase in Maine home prices and $7 billion in total sales. While a lot of activity continues to be centered in Portland, Westbrook saw its largest home sale ever in 2020 with a $1,000,000 single family home. With 33% of buyers from away, Davin questioned how long these new residents will stay in Maine, and how many winters they can weather. It is something she plans to keep her eye on for the future.
Areas outside of Portland, like Biddeford, Saco, and Brunswick saw growth in 2020 as well and are predicted to continue to see development in 2021. Dave Holman gave a report on the Midcoast market, highlighting Brunswick Landing, a former Navy Base. This site has been an incredible driver of innovation and growth for the area, having created some 2,200 jobs for the region and attracted both residential and commercial future development projects. While low industrial inventory and construction costs present some challenges to development in the Bangor area, Bev Uhlenhake of Epstein Commercial Real Estate echoed that there are also opportunities that exist in this new landscape: as more and more people work from home, why not decide to work from a beautiful place like Maine.
Justin Lamontagne of NAI The Dunham Group reflected in his Industrial Forecast, “There is no larger barrier to commercial real estate than uncertainty.” While the uncertainty of the past year was a barrier and challenge for many Mainers, there were pockets of opportunity throughout the state. Lamontagne saw hope for the industrial sector as Maine-based companies pivoted to produce life-saving equipment and companies like IDEXX, Puritan, and Abbott Labs demonstrated the future possibilities of Life Science companies and manufacturing in Maine. It was also another example of how Maine businesses showcased adaptability and resilience in the face of a devastating economy and pandemic. While there is still much work to be done, MEREDA and its members have their sleeves rolled up to work together and build Maine’s brighter future.