The lengthy process of gaining approvals for the conversion of an old Windham mill site into a 109 unit apartment complex has taken a tentative step forward. The Windham Town Council on Tuesday voted 5 – 1 (Muir; Gleason absent) in favor of a request for the town to apply for a Community Development Block Grant to upgrade utilities and other infrastructure for the project. The $320,000 grant, if approved by the county, would help fund new water, electrical, gas, stormwater controls and sewer lines, and improvements to the road intersection. Included in the request was an intent for the town to include an affordable housing TIF (tax increment financing) that would contribute toward both the redevelopment and for housing rehabilitation in South Windham. It was the TIF portion of the request that gave pause to most councilors, many of whom said they needed more information before going forward.
“I don’t want to be in a position where we move forward now and figure out the details (of the TIF) later,” said council chair Donna Chapman. She indicated support for the redevelopment, but added, “We’re not doing due diligence to the community by not knowing all the facts.”
Councilman Dennis Welch said he favored a workshop to work out all the details and the numbers of a TIF.
Bob Gaudreau, owner of Hardypond Construction of Portland which is developing the site, said he agreed. “We need to meet with the council. Our numbers haven’t changed, and we’ll be there.” He said he views passage of the block grant proposal as “a positive step.”
Windham Economic Development head Tom Bartell said that without the TIF portion of the block grant request, “…the project is dead.”
Hardypond Construction of Portland proposed last spring to purchase and redevelop the largely unused 5.2 acre complex on the Presumpscot River into apartments for seniors and upwardly mobile Millennials. Under the plan, estimated to cost around $15 million, at least 30 percent of the units would be affordable, that is, dedicated for low and middle income individuals or families.
Town officials say they intend to utilize tax increment financing (TIF) to support not only the redevelopment project, but other housing concerns, such as the deteriorating conditions in South Windham village.
Bartell said that a TIF has advantages for both the town and the developer because the value of the property that is under improvement increases the valuation of the town proportionately – normally this would result in higher county taxes and lower state subsidies for schools and revenue sharing. Under a TIF however, the higher valuation is “sheltered,” and this money can be used to support the TIF project, as well as capital improvement in the town, in this case rehabilitation in South Windham village. Also, with a TIF in place, a developer has more leverage to secure loans related to its project.
Although details have not yet been worked out, Bartell said that because the TIF would be tied to affordable housing, the funds must be used to address a local housing issue, so a portion of the sheltered money might be used to support the redevelopment project while the rest would be used to help correct blight and neglect in certain parts of South Windham village, which has long been a concern of residents, the town and elected officials.
Resident concerns over the redevelopment project have focused on the developer’s proposal to turn Mallison Falls Road into a one-way street. Sight distance is near zero for drivers exiting the mill site as well as for traffic traveling west down the steep hill. The road is a connector for commuters coming from and going to Gorham and other towns. As a result, traffic engineers for Hardypond will now suggest a 4-way stop at the intersection of the mill’s driveway and Mallison Falls Road, subject to approval by the Windham Town Council.
Two hurdles that have already been addressed successfully involved zoning and ground contamination around the site’s main building. Last July, in a unanimous show of support for redevelopment of the mill site, the Windham Town Council approved a contract zone for the project, allowing the developer to increase the number of units to be built from 74 to 109. In addition to increasing residential density, the council action reduced some setbacks and increased building height to accommodate two additional buildings that will be constructed near the old mill. The developer plans 45 units in the rehabilitated main building and 54 additional units in the two new multi-story buildings to be built. Ten units are also planned in two existing smaller buildings on the site.
In early December Hardypond was awarded funds by the Greater Portland Council of Governments to correct ground contamination at the mill site, adjacent to the Presumpscot River. Toxic substances, including arsenic, had been detected in soils surrounding the main building, which has been used for industrial activity since the 1700s.The site has served as a saw mill, woolen mill, and housed a steel products firm and Rich Tool & Die. An environmental assessment of the grounds classified the contamination as minor, “typical of long-time industrial sites.”
Frank Carr, business development director for Hardypond, said clean-up may begin as early as late spring, pending final approval of its site plan by the Windham Planning Board.
Carr said his firm has applied for listing the main mill building on the National Register of Historic Places. The town’s pre-application for a community development block grant notes the proposed “new multi-family residential community (is located) at the heart of South Windham while preserving…an integral part of the town’s industrial heritage.” Carr also points out that placement on the National Registry allows for certain federal and state tax credits for his firm as the redevelopment project proceeds. Carr said his research on the site’s history revealed the spot as the site of Windham’s first saw mill and a landing for the “King’s tall pines,” that were floated down the Presumpscot to be used for masts on British ships.
Carr said future plans call for an open complex. A kayak and canoe launch on the property would be gifted to the town. Historically, the location was known to the local natives as Nagwamqueeg, meaning canoe landing.
One tale related in Samuel Dole’s Windham in the Past, a preeminent source of Windham’s history, discusses the source of an early name for Mallison Falls. It seems the contractors employed to build the township’s first dam and saw mill were rewarded by their proprietors a barrel of beef, “which they pronounced to be of the finest quality, until one unlucky day, the cook produced the hoofs of a horse that were in the bottom of the barrel. The hoofs were put back, the barrel (sealed) and rolled over the falls, which were then and there named Horsebeef.” Horsebeef Falls. The name stuck until 1866 when it was re-named Mallison’s by a new company. Some local historians doubt the story, however Windham newcomers and local school children always seem to enjoy hearing it.
On the subject of name changes, all references to the Mallison Falls redevelopment project are referred to as the Robinson Mill Housing at Mallison Falls. Carr says the name is historical and refers to the owners of the mill when it was used to process wool.
Carr said the latest timetable for the project, pending further hurdles and approvals, is for construction to begin this summer, completion of the mill building (45 units) conversion by late fall, and the entire complex ready for occupancy by the winter of 2017.
Bartell said a council workshop on the TIF district will probably be held within two to three weeks. And he urges residents interested in any or all aspects of the project to monitor the town website for future council meetings and public hearings.