Daniel Stevenson has been at the center of an economic revival in Biddeford, from the removal of the city’s infamous trash incinerator to multimillion-dollar redevelopment projects in the city’s historic mill buildings and downtown.

Now, after eight years, Westbrook is hoping he can tap the same kind of growth in another former mill city.

This fall, Stevenson became the economic development director in Portland’s neighboring community. Westbrook is his hometown, but he said the work itself was as much a motivation to take the job as his connection there.

“I think Westbrook is really primed for significant growth,” said Stevenson, 49. “It’s really going to pop.”

In June, Maine Medical Center announced it would move 600 employees to the largest office building in Westbrook’s downtown. In the weeks that followed, city officials fielded calls from entrepreneurs and even a hotel developer interested in coming to Westbrook. A local coffee shop expanded, and a young couple announced plans for a bookstore and cafe.

“I’ve been in this role for 15 years, and there’s more energy associated with the downtown than even before,” City Manager Jerre Bryant said. “He’s going to be busy.”

Daniel Stevenson, right, talks with Fletcher Curran, head printer at Erin Flett’s studio inside the Dana Warp Mill. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

As the momentum builds, Stevenson’s former colleagues in Biddeford said Westbrook has the right guy at the right moment.

“Daniel has the capability to keep a lot of plates spinning in the air,” Biddeford Mayor Alan Casavant said. “It makes me nervous, but he pulls it off. When I think of all the projects that were assigned to his office, there was never a time when anything got dropped.”

Since 2008, growth in the Biddeford mill district has included $54.4 million in private investment, which came with 400 new jobs, according to city officials. Another $77.5 million in anticipated investment has been announced.

Stevenson started as the economic development director in Biddeford in 2010 after 13 years with the state Department of Economic and Community Development.

Early on, Stevenson worked with other city officials on a buyout of a trash incinerator at the heart of its downtown. In 2012, Biddeford purchased the Maine Energy Recovery Co. property for $6.7 million, then demolished most of the site. Casavant said Stevenson was a valuable adviser for the City Council during that time.

“His expertise was valued tremendously by staff, as well as by myself and the council,” Casavant said. “It was always imperative that he was part of these discussions.”

Soon, Biddeford shed its reputation as “Trashtown USA.” Developers began to pour money into mill buildings once too close to the stench.

In 2015, Tim Harrington got the city’s green light for a $50 million project called the Lincoln Hotel and Lofts, which will eventually include apartments, a hotel and restaurants. Around the same time, Nathan Szanton finalized tax credit funding for a $15 million housing project called the Lofts at Saco Falls.

Szanton said Stevenson helped him get city approval for a tax increment financing district and a parking lease that were key to the project’s success.

“Daniel is a very, very focused professional,” Szanton said. “He gets his eye on the prize, and he does not take his eye off the prize until he gets it.”

Doug Sanford has invested $40 million to $50 million in an ongoing transformation of the Pepperell Mills Campus, which is now home to 100 apartments and more than 100 small businesses. The vacancies on Biddeford’s Main Street storefronts decreased from 30 percent in 2012 to 19 percent in 2015. In early 2016, FedEx announced it would move into a vacant 265,000-square-foot building that once housed a Hostess Brands bakery. Later that year, York County officials chose Biddeford for a $65 million courthouse. As of spring 2017, Biddeford’s industrial parks were 95 percent occupied. A prominent Portland developer scooped up a historic downtown building for future development, maybe a boutique hotel.

The site of the trash incinerator still sits vacant, five years after the city spent millions to shut it down, but Stevenson said that property becomes more valuable with each new development in the neighborhood.

When talking about his work, Stevenson points to partners like the Heart of Biddeford, a nonprofit that works to revitalize the downtown. Executive Director Delilah Poupore described him as “very collaborative,” saying said he helped secure city dollars for a facade improvement program and startup loans for new businesses.

“Daniel certainly has the track record to move a city forward,” Poupore said.

Like Biddeford, Westbrook used to have a smelly center. But the stink from the Sappi Paper mill is gone, as are more than 2,000 employees. The mill now makes release papers, which add texture to products such as shoes, clothing and soccer balls.

Biddeford and Westbrook, both riverfront mill towns, also have similar demographics.

Biddeford has a population of roughly 21,000 and a median income of $47,265. Westbrook is smaller at roughly 18,000 residents, with a slightly higher median income of $48,074. Forty percent of people in Westbrook are renters, compared to 54 percent in Biddeford, but the median value of owner-occupied homes in both cities is around $210,000. Both have sizable immigrant populations.

Stevenson’s move up the Maine Turnpike comes as Portland’s neighboring city is trying to rebrand from an odorous mill town with a dirty river, to a home for high-tech business and a destination for water sports.

“It is a more economically healthy city than it was in Sappi’s heyday,” Bryant said. “You really see the product of an aggressive push by the community to diversify its business base.”

For example, Bryant said, Sappi has downsized significantly but now has an international market. Idexx Laboratories Inc., a veterinary-diagnostics company, is an S&P 500 company with thousands of employees. Other companies have moved to Westbrook, like Schlotterbeck & Foss and other food producers. Disability RMS left a gaping vacancy at One Riverfront Plaza when it left for South Portland, but Maine Medical Center has purchased that building with plans to move hundreds of employees there. The Daily Grind expanded its drive-thru coffee stand to a sit-down cafe. Quill Books and Beverage will soon be Westbrook’s first independent bookstore. The developer of a large retail plaza announced its anchor tenant would be the popular grocery store Market Basket. Another developer inquired about an empty city-owned acre downtown as a possible site for a hotel. More than three dozen businesses occupy the Dana Warp Mill.

Stevenson’s job is somewhat of a restructuring in Westbrook City Hall. In recent years, the economic development director had become an assistant city administrator, taking on more responsibilities. But the city wanted someone focused exclusively on economic development, so Bryant restored the original title.

Stevenson’s salary is $93,000, and his office has a marketing budget of $22,500.

“I’m excited overall to have someone dedicated to economic development,” said Ed Symbol, a Westbrook business owner and the board president of the chamber of commerce. “Over the last few years, we’ve had someone, but I’m not sure that person has been given the range to be able to do what Daniel is going to be able to do.”

As Stevenson settles into his new role, one of his first tasks is to take an inventory of Westbrook’s businesses. He is collecting data to track available retail and industrial space, and he plans to hire an intern from the University of Southern Maine to help with that task. He is already meeting with groups like the Downtown Westbrook Coalition and talking about improvements to the underutilized Blue Note Park.

He said he also wants to focus on business retention and expansion, bringing employers together to talk about what they need to stay in Westbrook. So he is visiting every Westbrook business in person – so far, more than 20 – to introduce himself and talk shop.

“I’m always in fifth gear, but I’m very strategic in how we get things done,” Stevenson said.

 

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