The Right Equation for Responsible Development: Spotlight on Pepperell Mill Campus

In the fifth of a 6-part series exclusive to the Maine Real Estate Insider, we’ll provide an up-close look at the most notable commercial development projects of the past year that are helping to fuel Maine’s economy in terms of investment and job creation.  MEREDA is proud to recognize responsible development based upon criteria including environmental sustainability, economic impact, energy efficiency, social impact and job creation.  Please join with us in celebrating Pepperell Mill Campus.  A conversation with Doug Sanford.

MEREDA:  Describe the building and project.

Doug Sanford:  The Pepperell Mill Campus is a large mixed-use complex formally used for textile manufacturing. The property sits on a 16-acre site on the banks of the Saco River falls, and is also in the heart of downtown Biddeford. The campus includes 16 buildings with 1.1 million square feet of interior space. The goal is to redevelop and repurpose the mills. To date 550,000 sf of space has been built out and leased to a broad number of mixes uses. 120 businesses lease at the mill and 100 apartments are home to 180 people. 500 people either live or work on campus.

MEREDA:  What was the impetus for this project? 

Doug Sanford:  Opportunity and vision. The development team purchased the former Biddeford Textile complex in 2004, and then made the larger purchase of the rest of the mill complex in 2010. This created the potential to develop a fully integrated campus of complimentary mixed uses and residences. The vision of creating a campus came to shape with the opportunity to purchase a 1.1 million square foot fully connected mill complex.

MEREDA:  That sounds like quite a process.  How long were you in the planning stages before construction started?

Doug Sanford:  From the first phase purchase date in 2004 it took 12 months to create a preliminary plan to commence work on the project. Architectural plans, municipal approvals, state approvals, permitting and financing were secured and the project was on. It is interesting to note that we purposely did not spend an extended period of time and expense with a “master planning” process. It was the development team’s opinion that the project needed to prove itself quickly and create tangible results. So, once approvals were obtained for a broad set of tenant uses, construction commenced. It was that early momentum that carried the project through the troubled economy of 2008 – 2011. Once the project was well on its way, the clear path of master planning was established.

MEREDA:  Tell us about the most challenging aspect of getting this project completed. 

Doug Sanford:  During the early stages of the project the most challenging aspect was financing. It took a local bank, with a philosophy of investing in community redevelopment, to allow for the purchase funding and early build out funding of the project. Thank you Saco and Biddeford Savings!

The next set of challenges centered on growing pains. To transform from the purchase of a vast amount of vacant interior space, into a management team to handle the day to day operations of 120 businesses and 100 residents, was no easy task. As a management company we had to quickly ramp up in size and put into place systems to handle the job at hand.

MEREDA:  Something unexpected you learned along the way was….

Doug Sanford:  Politics and public relations became part of the job of developing such a large project. We started the project as a construction and property management company. Now we handle marketing, manage a web site and spend a lot of time interfacing with our host municipality. To have a healthy and constructive relationship with your host city is important. It allows for a public / private collaboration on initiatives that benefit all involved.

MEREDA:  Now that it’s complete, what feature of the project do you think makes it the most notable? 

Doug Sanford:  The project is not yet complete, but it’s well on its way. The most notable feature is that the Pepperell Mill Campus and the North Dam Mill development have almost single handedly created the environment for the renaissance of downtown Biddeford. The city and area had become an economic victim of the declining textile mill industry. The redevelopment of the mill’s vacant space paved the way for Biddeford’s economic recovery. Numerous other real estate projects and municipal investments have followed. This is an exciting time for Biddeford / Saco!

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