FAIRFIELD — The economic benefit of a $4 million renovation project at the former Gerald Hotel, where demolition began this week, is likely to be significant, although much of it will be hard to quantify.
Local restaurateurs said they plan to expand their offerings to accommodate construction workers and the building’s eventual tenants, a possible early sign of the project’s eventual positive impact on a downtown area that has more vacant storefronts than occupied ones.
A crew of about eight men from Sheridan Corp. is knocking down interior walls and doing other demolition work on the building’s first level. In the coming months, activity at the site is expected to increase, peaking in late spring or early summer at more than 100 workers per day.
Greg Paxton, executive director of Maine Preservation, said an economic impact report on historic preservation projects like this one shows that the activity will support the equivalent of 82 full-time construction jobs for one year.
The impact of the spending of those construction workers is difficult to quantify, he said, but other studies show that the local real estate market is likely to benefit.
“When there is a vacant building, particularly a good-sized vacant building, it can lower the real estate market right around it,” Paxton said. “When that building is filled, it improves the surrounding real estate market. That’s why historic preservation projects are such a catalyst for the areas in which they take place.”
One of the sole bright spots in Maine’s real estate market during the recession, Paxton said, has been projects funded by historic preservation tax credits, which he said have been responsible for a quarter of a billion dollars in projects since 2008.
Other projects in the area include Gardiner’s Johnson Hall, which hasn’t started yet; Freedom’s Mill at Freedom, which is under way; Farmington’s Music Hall Block; and two Waterville projects, the Gilman Street School and the Hathaway mill.
The project may not have a large direct impact on the tax rolls, at least not in 2013, Josh Reny, Fairfield’s town manager, said. Reny said that the property will remain on the tax rolls and that its value will probably not change enough to have a significant impact by April, when annual assessments are done.
Many of the economic benefits of the project are likely to be indirect, said Paxton, who pointed to an economic impact report commissioned by Maine Preservation in April 2011.
“When a historic building is fixed in a neighborhood, it stimulates investment and enterprise from neighboring property owners, creating new jobs and more revenue to local government,” according to the study.
The study also said that revitalized historic buildings bring customers to other downtown businesses.
Ann Maglaras, owner of the downtown Kennebec Cafe, said she is expanding her hours to accommodate the lunch crowd beginning in January, in part because of the project. She said she will add lunch items such as popovers, chowders and salads.
Yim Cheung, owner of the Cheung Lee Express restaurant up the street from the hotel, said he hasn’t noticed added business yet but he hopes he will when the construction crews grow.
Sonny’s Pizza, across from the Gerald, seems to have been the most popular lunchtime destination for the workers so far.
“They come over every day,” manager Deanne Gage said. “They get coffee, sandwiches, all kinds of food.”
Gage said Sonny’s is prepared to change to serve the 28 seniors who are expected to live in the hotel after the renovation is complete.
“We’re going to do deliveries, if they want them,” she said.
The eventual residents are also a focus for Wayne Kenney, owner of Belanger’s Drive-In Restaurant.
“The older crowd is the one that eats out a lot and buys little things at local stores,” he said. “They don’t tend to go very far from where they live.”
Kenney is right in that seniors tend to provide sorely needed pedestrian traffic to a community, according to Roxanne Eflin, director of the Maine Downtown Center, an economic development program of the Maine Development Foundation.
Eflin expressed excitement for the project, which she said has the potential to spur a badly needed transformation in the downtown.
“Fairfield has never seen a project like this,” she said. “Once it’s online and it’s occupied, the great excitement, the activity that’s going to be taking place downtown will be a great benefit.”
Eflin said she didn’t know of any figures that could quantify the overall economic benefit to the community, but she said that studies show investments in Main Street projects in general result in a return of $27 for each dollar invested.
“Every dollar that goes into a downtown comes back to the community many, many times,” she said.
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287