AUGUSTA — David and Kathy Willman have lived in a renovated 19th century farmhouse on Old Belgrade Road for more than 25 years.
When their grown daughter was young, she bicycled in middle of the road. Now 3,000 vehicles travel it every day, the Maine Department of Transportation has told neighborhood residents.
That number could triple in November, when MaineGeneral Health opens its $300-plus million hospital a third of a mile north of the Willmans’ home.
So, like many others in the area, the Willmans put their home on the market hoping to attract a commercial- or medical-use developer.
They hope that since property in well-trafficked areas can get higher sale prices for commercial use than those sold for residential use, they’ll get a premium.
The changing nature of the area sped up the Willmans’ plan to downsize to a smaller house.
The house has “a lot of blood, sweat and tears in it,” said David Willman, 54, in his kitchen Friday.
“It’s hard to give up, but in the same breath, it’s a different neighborhood.”
Local experts say while the area around the new hospital is now Augusta’s biggest economic development area, it’ll be a matter of years before much of the growth is realized.
They say that and other factors mean homes won’t necessarily sell quickly — or for big prices.
‘Hoping to get rich’
At least eight residential houses for sale on Civic Center Drive, which is Route 27, and Old Belgrade Road are marketed as commercial or medical properties, according to online property listings. And those are just a fraction of the properties along the two roads that have for sale signs out front.
Real estate agents aren’t reporting many sales yet, but the Willmans’ across-the-street neighbors are an exception.
Donna Nutting, 73, said she and her husband, Bill, were the first people on Old Belgrade Road to sell their home, a four-bedroom house on more than seven acres. It was bought in June by Brian Gillis, an Oakland-based proctologist.
He paid the Nuttings approximately $400,000. They moved to Augusta’s Mayfair neighborhood, buying a similar sized home on less land for about half that.
Nutting estimated that between 10 and 12 properties on the road have been listed for sale since construction started for MaineGeneral’s Alfond Center for Health.
But the Nuttings’ success isn’t common.
Bill Sprague, of Augusta-based Sprague & Curtis Real Estate, which sold the Nuttings’ home, said commercial users can usually pay more for a property than someone looking for a home. A ranch that could go for $150,000 in a residential area could sell for $300,000 along Civic Center Drive, he said.
However, Sprague said the cost to develop a property into a commercial space or a medical office can still be a challenge.
Often, homes on the property must be demolished, he said, and new costs for construction and parking can add up.
“Everybody put their houses on the market when the hospital (began construction) hoping to get rich,” Nutting said, “which never happened.”
Expansion, but no ‘gold rush’
Real estate agents and business leaders expect the new hospital and an enhanced Interstate 95 exit to further spur development up Civic Center Drive and around the hospital.
But most aren’t expecting an explosion of growth.
“We think new development is going to be slow and steady in that area,” said Chris Paszyc of CBRE/The Boulos Company in Portland. “I don’t think you’re going to see the gold rush that some people are predicting.”
Paszyc is the broker for three properties on Civic Center Drive, including a home marketed as a commercial development opportunity. He said there’s already a lot of undeveloped land along the road and not all residential sites are suitable for commercial development.
Still, Paszyc said Civic Center Drive is the center of development in Augusta right now, and retail and office users are actively looking for sites in the area.
Matt Nazar, director of development services for the city, described the phenomenon as an expansion of Augusta’s economic development center.
He said development began to expand north of I-95’s exit 112 after Central Maine Commerce Center, formerly a computer manufacturing plant, opened in the mid-2000s. Before that, development clustered around the Augusta Marketplace, the grouping of box stores south of the exit, which opened in the early 1990s. The exit was built then to accommodate the growth.
Before that, it was the Augusta Civic Center and University of Maine at Augusta, which opened in the early 1970s, when the area was mostly woods and farmland.
“The development is essentially following where the people are, where the people and traffic are,” Nazar said. “That’s not uncommon at all.”
Nazar expects many retail and office spaces to open along the stretch of Civic Center Drive between I-95’s exit 112 and Old Belgrade Road in the next four years. A modification to exit 113 which puts it near the hospital and opens it to both north and south-bound traffic will be crucial in expanding the capacity for traffic, he said.
Skowhegan Savings Bank recently moved about 10 miles south from Belgrade into a new building on Civic Center Drive near the intersection of Old Belgrade Road. Kennebec Savings Bank has built a 24-hour banking kiosk nearby that is due to open this month.
North Augusta Market, a long-time fixture in the area, tore down its decades-old building last year and built a new, larger store and put in a dozen gas pumps and is now Damon’s Quick Stop.
Sprague said he expects Civic Center Drive to look much different five years from now.
“There’s going to be a lot of traffic kind of drifting up toward the hospital and that exit, which will make things less out of the way and more in the center of things,” he said.
Slow going on the market
But all that doesn’t lend itself to quick real-estate sales.
Andrew Smith, of Augusta Foot & Ankle Center on Eastern Avenue, bought a few parcels of land on Old Belgrade Road totaling around 10 acres three years ago.
He intended to live in a house on the property and develop new location for his practice and other medical offices. Soon afterward, he realized he wouldn’t be able to invest the possibly $1 million that he needed.
He’s now looking to sell the property.
Smith’s house is there now, but he said it’s too difficult for a solo practitioner not connected to a hospital to spend the money necessary to establish a multi-unit medical office.
“I’ve just got my lure out, just like everyone else,” he said.
Willman also said he and his wife are simply testing the waters to see what kind of interest is out there. They put their house up for sale about a year and a half ago but haven’t had any luck yet.
The white vinyl-sided two-story house overlooks the Harold Alfond Center for Cancer Care and the soon-to-be-opened hospital — both of which Willman said are positive and needed resources for the area, despite significantly transforming the formerly quiet neighborhood.
“We’re not bitter,” he said. “We’ll just adapt and change with it.”
Paul Koenig — 621-5663