In Biddeford races, concerns about the price of redevelopment success

·11 min read

Oct. 18—BIDDEFORD — In 2012, the Biddeford City Council made a bold move when it voted to buy and tear down a trash incinerator that many believed had stymied development after the city's textile manufacturing mills closed.

The redevelopment that followed altered the trajectory of the city, generated millions of dollars of investment and changed the perception of a place once dubbed "Trashtown U.S.A."

New shops and restaurants opened along Main Street. An influx of new residents, many of them in their 20s, moved into renovated mills and rehabbed apartment buildings and made the city's median age the lowest in the state. The number of jobs in the mill district jumped 450 percent in four years.

Nearly a decade out from that decision, the city is at another pivotal moment as residents elect a mayor and city councilors who will have to confront an urgent need for affordable housing and try to balance development opportunities with concerns that some in Biddeford are being left behind or priced out.

"The change in Biddeford in the last decade has been astronomical," said Amy Clearwater, the city councilor for Ward 5, who is running for reelection. "We are facing an unprecedented opportunity and challenge."

Mayor Alan Casavant, who led the city through the closure of the Maine Energy Recovery Co. property and Biddeford's subsequent revitalization, is seeking a sixth term, he says, to continue to help shape projects. He is challenged by Victoria Foley, a former city councilor and state representative, who says Biddeford needs a new leader to guide the city through its next era of change and position it for long-term success.

There will be a shake-up on the nine-member City Council after a two-year term that included decisions on large development projects and navigating the pandemic. Departing are Council President John McCurry and councilors Stephen St. Cyr and Michael Ready, who are not seeking reelection. Running unopposed for their seats are Scott Whiting of Ward 2, Martin Grohman of Ward 3 and Liam LaFountain of Ward 7.

In Ward 5, Clearwater is running against Jessica Johnson, a local business owner who has not held public office. And in Ward 4, Councilor Ashanti Dwight Williams, who was appointed in June, is running against Bobby Mills, who previously served five terms on the council.

After the Nov. 2 election, the mayor and council are expected to tackle a number of tasks, including considering large-scale housing proposals, the development of the Lincoln Street property where the trash incinerator once stood, and updates to the city's zoning and comprehensive plan. One of the most pressing issues will be housing.

City leaders say the ongoing revitalization of downtown has combined with other market forces to accelerate housing costs over the past three years. Housing prices are still lower than in the Portland area, but that may not last for long since people are moving to Biddeford from Portland because of the housing crisis there.

The average rent on a two-unit apartment in Biddeford jumped 40 percent between 2012 and 2020, from $863 to $1,211, according to city estimates, financially straining working families and seniors on fixed incomes. People looking for less expensive options to rent or buy have been leaving Biddeford for other communities in York County.

The intense demand for both apartments and single-family homes in the past two years prompted the City Council to focus on affordability, density and incentives for developers. Late last year, the council for the first time adopted housing goals to guide policy decisions, hoping to generate more housing of all sorts — single-family homes as well as units for those with low incomes and seniors.

MAPPING THE FUTURE

Biddeford's decision to buy the MERC property for more than $6 million came eight months after Casavant was first elected mayor. It was a move he pushed for and now sees as "the catalyst that just turned on the engine."

A lifelong Biddeford resident and retired high school teacher, Casavant had previously spent 18 years on the City Council and was nearing the end of four terms in the Maine Legislature when he was elected mayor in 2011. He knew the closure of Maine Energy would be good for the city, but says he didn't anticipate the speed of change or how quickly it would rekindle community pride.

During his time as mayor, Casavant, 69, has been an enthusiastic Biddeford booster. He said he had to learn early on how to handle criticism and misinformation on social media. When the city was planning to build its first municipal parking garage and instituting paid parking in downtown parking lots, he had to defend those decisions against intense pushback and scrutiny from residents.

It's been exciting, he said, to see projects through, like the redevelopment of the Lincoln Mill, and he wants to remain at the table as other projects that have been in the pipeline are developed. He also wants to use a final term to continue to work on the housing shortage and find news ways to connect residents.

"I think the next level in Biddeford's development is not so much just the economic part," he said, "it's the community building so everybody can feel a part of what's happening and feel like they have a voice."

His opponent, Foley, 38, moved to Biddeford in 2016 after being priced out of Portland, where she grew up. She was excited by Biddeford, she said, because of its vibrancy and affordability. She also saw a chance to play an active role in its future.

Soon after moving to the city, Foley met with Casavant to ask about how to get involved. He appointed her to the Downtown Development Commission, then to the City Council when Mills stepped down after moving out of Ward 5. Foley ran unopposed for the seat in 2017, but had to step down when she moved in 2018.

That same year, she was elected to represent the city in the legislature, where she worked on insurance and health care issues and supported efforts to restore municipal revenue sharing to the level required by law. She also made connections she feels would be of use if she's elected mayor.

The city is at the point now where it urgently needs to finish updating its comprehensive plan, which it last did in 1999, to keep from "winging it" without an overarching vision, Foley said. The update is expected to be done by the end of the year, but Foley, who is on a subcommittee working on the plan, feels more can be done to make the process transparent and solicit meaningful public input.

Foley, who works as communications director for New England Cancer Specialists, wants to be part of strategizing how the city develops long-term. She would like to see it grow in a sustainable way, making sure that development aligns with what the city needs, including more affordable housing options.

"I think the city is at a moment of opportunity. This is not the time to take our foot off the gas," Foley said. "It's important to have new leadership that is ready to continue to work for the people of Biddeford through this ongoing time of change so we are able to position ourselves for long-term success. I do not believe we're at the point where we can say, 'Well, we're almost done here.'"

THE PRICE OF SUCCESS

When Jessica Johnson graduated from Biddeford High School in 2000, the downtown felt like a ghost town. Textiles were still being manufactured, but not like back in the era when thousands of city residents went to work in the mills. After four years in the Army, Johnson returned home to raise her family in Ward 5, where she has lived her entire life, and where little seemed to change until 2012.

"My ward was all of a sudden flourishing with all the new businesses coming in," she said. "It's really done a complete 180 from where it was when I was a child."

But Johnson, now 39 and owner of the downtown custom sewing shop Soul Stitcher, has also seen people struggle with rising rents and homelessness. She worries that too many people in her ward feel disconnected from the community and city government. If elected, she wants to hold regular neighborhood meetings to fix the disconnect she sees between residents and city officials.

Johnson said she often hears from folks who are feeling the pressure of the rising cost of housing. She feels affordable housing is critical. At the same time, she said, the city needs to tackle homelessness and address infrastructure needs, including crumbling sidewalks in some neighborhoods.

"Biddeford is more than just Main Street," Johnson said. "I feel like so much focus has gone into revitalizing Main Street, which is not a bad thing because it helps the entire community. But I also feel like we have to pay attention to the neighborhoods on the outskirts of Biddeford."

Clearwater, a 37-year-old bank vice president, moved to Biddeford in 2017, when she and her wife were looking to buy a home but were priced out of Portland. In Biddeford, they found a tight-knit community where they felt they could settle and raise children. A year after Clearwater arrived, Casavant appointed her to the City Council seat Foley had given up when she moved. Clearwater was elected to the seat in 2019.

When she was first seated on the council, Clearwater was shocked that there seemed to be more conversations about how the city was getting cool than about how to prevent the kind of gentrification she had seen in Portland.

"The fact that Biddeford hadn't already taken significant steps to make sure the downtown would remain an affordable, comfortable place to live for the people who were currently living there really surprised me," she said.

Since then, the council has taken some positive steps, but more needs to be done, Clearwater said. An updated comprehensive plan will give it a "carefully developed map" of where the city wants to go in terms of development. She also wants the city to use incentives to get developers to build affordable units and connections to public transportation.

"If we don't take control of what's happening with the developers, and we continue to be grateful that they're here and worried that they'll go away, we won't get for the citizens what we really ought to be able to get," she said.

Like Clearwater, Williams said that when he moved to Biddeford, he found a vibrant and welcoming community of people excited about the future. The 45-year-old bartender and reserve corrections officer was appointed to the council in June, the city's first Black city councilor.

"I love Biddeford's energy. The problem is we need to make the housing affordable to keep the people here who make it what it is," he said. "It's the number one priority on my list."

It's also personal: He said he's a couple hundred dollars away from being unable to afford his home.

Williams said he also wants make sure the city works hard to be inclusive and diverse. He said he hopes to "really help make things happen for the city of Biddeford" in the future.

Mills, 56, is looking to return to the council after several years away. After a decade representing Ward 5, which encompasses the downtown and mill districts, he had to resign when he bought a house just over the line into Ward 4. He stayed active in city government by serving on the Board of Assessment Review, Zoning Board of Appeals and Wastewater Commission.

He said his accomplishments during his time on the council include advocating successfully for buying the Knights of Columbus Hall to use as a TV studio, developments on Green Street and renovating the high school. He is proud of his vote to buy the Maine Energy property.

Mills, who works for FedEx, also worries about people in Biddeford who are struggling to make ends meet and wants to be a "voice of the people." He wants to keep spending in check and make sure the cost of developments doesn't fall on property owners and renters. He would like to see the council push for more affordable housing and efforts to help people buy their first homes.

"Our city's renaissance has been wonderful, but it's getting too expensive as rents are rising, property taxes are going up and the costs of good and services are skyrocketing," he said.

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