MEREDA panel: Developers take on emerging trends in Southern Maine

The demand for mixed-use spaces is trending upwards in Southern Maine, experts shared in a panel in September.

Speaking at a Maine Real Estate and Development (MEREDA) “Morning Menu” roundtable, panelists explored current and evolving development trends throughout York County. With an influx of young professionals moving to Southern Maine, the need for rental housing is on the rise, and a focus on community-oriented, multi-use spaces remains paramount.

The panel, titled: “Southern Maine Development Trends: If You Build It, Will They Come?” was held on September 14, 2021, at the Holiday Inn by the Bay in Portland and was moderated by Craig Young, Vice President of MEREDA and Partner at The Boulos Company, a commercial real estate firm based in Maine and New Hampshire. The discussion offered insights on the latest industry movements from two developers who have been active in Southern Maine.

Port Property CEO and co-owner, Tom Watson, discussed the burgeoning demand for multi-use environments and the urgent need for rental housing, specifically within Biddeford. Speaking to Port Property’s recent project at Riverdam, Watson stressed the trending demand for “neighborhood environments” and how multi-use spaces can be developed to create “vibrant community centers.”

Acquired in 2018, Riverdam demonstrates the “momentum” of the Southern Maine region, with 71 residential units and four commercial spaces making up the 91,000 sq ft property on the Saco River. The momentum isn’t slowing down, according to Watson, who revealed details on Port Property’s latest venture into the Biddeford market: an upcoming redevelopment of another vacant mill building at 59 Elm Street. Watson highlighted the redevelopment’s location as a key to its potential growth: the 150,000-square-foot industrial building is located along the Saco River in the historic mill district adjacent to the City’s RiverWalk and planned new Pearl Street park. The site of the project offers opportunities for future mixed-use development to create a new live-work-play destination for the community.

The second panelist, Amy Cullen, shared her insights as Vice President of The Szanton Company, a Portland-based mixed-income housing developer. Cullen is also President of Saco Falls Management, The Szanton Company’s property management arm. Among the projects Cullen has managed are The Mill at Saco Falls and The Lofts at Saco Falls, two of the earliest residential redevelopments in the Biddeford-Saco mill district. Built in 2010, The Mill at Saco Falls is a “166 year-old historic textile mill building on the banks of the Saco River,” in the heart of the district.

Both panelists focused in on historic mill rehabilitation projects, underlining the importance of private/public partnerships. Cullen described Affordable Housing Tax Increment Financing as a “crucial element” in getting adaptive reuse projects off the ground, as well as state and federal historic tax credits. Referencing their work on mill renovations, both Watson and Cullen cited the assistance of historic tax credits as a “key element” in bringing these projects to development and touted their impact on not only the preservation of historic buildings, but also local economic growth. Through it all, said Cullen, “the results speak for themselves, as these projects bring a lot of vitality to Southern Maine.”

Watson and Cullen went on to exchange views on the state of commercial real estate, the rental market, and takeaways from recent projects. Both panelists expressed a positive outlook and a heightened demand for housing in the Southern Maine market, specifically within the Biddeford mill district and downtown.

As the City surges amid an economic and cultural revival, development of housing is critical for continued long-term growth and expansion.

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