If you made your first-ever visit to downtown Biddeford today, you would have to be impressed.

Thanks to the creative reuse of 19th-century mill buildings, newly developed high-end housing with river views and a string of one-of-a-kind businesses that line Main Street, the city is a place where a wide variety of people want to live, work and visit.

That has helped it find something in short supply statewide — young people. Because of the influx of new residents in their 20s and 30s attracted by the city’s opportunities and lifestyle, Biddeford has become the youngest city in Maine, with a median age nearly a decade younger than the state’s median of 44.

But if you had made your very first visit to Biddeford 20 years ago and just came back today, you would be even more impressed.

‘TRASH TOWN’

Back then, when today’s Biddeford brewers and entrepreneurs were still in elementary school, the city was smarting from the loss of the textile industry, which had left the city’s trademark mill complex mostly empty.

And an economic development misstep from the early 1980s had located a trash incinerator in the heart of downtown. Pungent odors wafting from 19 communities’ trash trucks and the smoke from the incinerator was what the city was best known for. The nickname “Trash Town USA” made it the last place you’d expect to become the state’s next hot location.

The incinerator was shut down for good in 2012, when the City Council voted 8-1 to buy it for $6.7 million. But that was just the end of a two-decade effort by people inside and outside City Hall. Their struggle required court cases, bills passed by the Legislature, personal politicking by a governor as well as one failed referendum before the final deal was approved. If not for this effort, the rebirth that Biddeford is now enjoying would be impossible.

FEARS DIDN’T STOP CHANGE

But, while it seems obvious now, it didn’t always seem that way to everyone. People didn’t want the city to spend the money, and worried about the loss of tax revenue that would result from the plant being removed. It took a lot of work to convince a majority of residents to take a chance on a better future.

The new development won’t solve all the city’s problems, and it may create some new ones. As Biddeford attracts newcomers, competition for apartments is driving up rents and making the downtown area unfordable for longtime residents. But problems like that are much easier to solve than the ones Biddeford has already overcome.

The vision and patience of the city’s leaders are paying off, and they should serve as an example to every other community in the state that is wondering if it too should take a chance and embrace change.

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