Front Street in Bath. The Sagadahock Real Estate Association, which has owned much of the downtown since the 19th century, has begun selling off its properties.

BATH — On the surface, downtown Bath appears to be humming along as usual: Locals at the end of the workday dash in and out of Brackett’s Market for last-minute groceries, Now You’re Cooking continues to hold demos in its kitchen while selling high-end appliances, and visitors still find unique souvenirs at Lisa-Marie’s Made in Maine.

But underneath the surface, a massive transformation is taking place as the Sagadahock Real Estate Association, which has owned vast portions of the downtown since the 19th century, is selling off its properties and making way for new owners.

“I don’t know how many people in the community really realize how many buildings have been owned by Sagadahock,” said City Council Chairwoman Mari Eosco, who also serves as the executive director of Main Street Bath. “I don’t know if people realize that it will likely have an impact.”

According to the assessor’s database, the company owned 15 properties in Bath, including whole blocks of the downtown as of April 1, 2016. In total, the properties were assessed at $8.9 million, with an estimated tax burden of $188,048.

To put it in more visual terms, the company owned 3.24 acres of the city’s cozy downtown.

On paper, it can be worrisome for one company to own so much of a city, but Eosco said it didn’t develop like that in Bath.

“I can see why that could be a little scary because they really have a lot of control. I don’t think they exuded that control over anyone,” Eosco said. “But potentially in another community or with another family, it could have looked different.”

But starting last year, the Sagadahock Real Estate Association began selling off its various properties to new owners. John G. Morse IV, whose family has run the company since the mid-20th century, said it was simply time to move on.

“I’m getting old enough, and some of the other members of the family are getting old enough, that we don’t want to continue doing this,” Morse said. “I’m 73. How much longer am I going to do this? There’s a lot of work to doing it.”

So far, the company has already sold four of its properties.

FOUNDED IN 1887

It’s difficult to understate the significance of the Sagadahock Real Estate Association’s impact on the development of the city. Since its founding in 1887, the company has had its hand in the downtown. Founded by brothers William and Oliver Moses, the company quickly bought up several blocks. Undeterred by a fire that damaged much of the downtown in 1894, the company rebuilt and continued to expand its assets.

Local historian Robin Haynes said once the company came under the control of the Morse family, they continued to expand the company’s holdings by purchasing properties such as the Grant building and the future home of Brackett’s Market.

According to Haynes, the Morse family’s time running the company was characterized by a genuine concern for improving the downtown with a gentle hand.

“These were people who not only owned, but really cared about the town’s health,” Haynes said. “I don’t think they were loud about their concerns.”

Morse downplayed the role of the association and his family in Bath’s success.

“I don’t think that we’ve had that big an impact on Bath. We’ve tried to keep it so that it’s retail,” Morse said. “We’ve also have had a lot of assistance from the people who run these businesses, and the retail people who are running these stores – they’re doing the hard work. They’re working six days a week keeping their store open.”

“That’s what the success is,” he said. “They’re helping to drive the ship.”

DOWNTOWN CHARACTER

The character of Bath’s downtown is an important selling point for the city. The small, walkable retail area has found a way to survive in the era of the big box store. With extensive ownership of the downtown, the company could carefully select which retailers to let into the tight-knit business community, avoiding unwanted competition.

“The Morses were very concerned about the downtown, and I know from conversations with Jane Morse that her father worried about what kind of tenants to put in what space,” Haynes said. “And I know Jane well enough to know that she also really worried about what she could bring to the downtown that would help the downtown and the business district and the city of Bath. These were people who cared about the downtown.”

“It’s been sad. They are a big part of this whole town. When Jane passed, it was a hard blow for all of us because she had a big heart,” said Lisa-Marie Stewart of Lisa-Marie’s Made in Maine. “She took care of all her tenants.”

Since the company doesn’t owe anything on any of its properties, Morse said the company kept rents significantly lower than what they could have charged.

“They were able to keep rents at a very reasonable rate at a time when downtowns were failing because everyone was moving out to big boxes and strip malls,” Eosco said.

Beyond real estate matters, the Morse family also worked to foster an identity for the Bath business community. The company, and specifically Jane Morse, was also involved with Main Street Bath, a group dedicated to developing the downtown. Jane Morse helped found the group and even served as president for a time.

Mike Fear, president and owner of Now You’re Cooking on Front Street, said that in his store’s 19 years as a tenant its relationship with the company has been positive.

“Sagadahock Real Estate Association has been my idea of the ideal landlord. For many of those years we were fortunate to deal with Jane Morse, and it was a great loss personally and community-wise to lose her,” he said. “However, John Morse and his team have also been tremendous in going above and beyond in meeting our needs at Now You’re Cooking.”

‘A DIFFERENT DOWNTOWN’

“It’s going to be different downtown, and I just think that we’ll have to see how this plays out,” Eosco said. “But I feel confident that we have such a strong foundation as a community about what we hope to see that anyone coming in who is purchasing buildings will understand … that we have a strong feeling about the downtown and our use of it.”

“I assume that because there was so much care about who the tenants were, they will also care about who the purchasers are,” Haynes said.

Morse confirmed as much, saying that finding the right owner is more than just settling on the right price.

“I have told a couple people that have come around, ‘If you’re just going to buy the building and renovate it a little bit … and raise the rent so that it’s more salable to the next person and flip it, I’m not interested in having you be an owner,'” he said. “We want someone who’s going to be here for the long run and they’re looking out for Bath and they’re also looking out for the tenants in the building.”

“The end goal is to get us out of the business and to pass on the buildings to responsible parties who want Bath to succeed,” Morse said.

Nathan Strout can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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