New housing may signal better times for village

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WINDHAM – After losing a multi-unit housing complex to a forced eviction notice from the town in June, South Windham will gain a new development on Oct. 1, when Jim Cummings unveils nine apartment units at 13 Depot St.

Eventually, there will be 12 units within three buildings on the former train depot site, Cummings said. Each unit will have three bedrooms, one-and-a half bathrooms and a kitchen. Robie Builders of Windham has worked on the 1-acre site since June.

The new development comes just months after the town of Windham condemned 9 Main St., a six-unit apartment building housing 17 tenants, following numerous, repeated code violations.

Cummings said nine units have already been rented, with three more still under construction. According to Cummings, none of his new tenants used to live at the 9 Main St. building, which was operated by landlord Dwayne St. Ours of Gorham.

The average monthly rental is $1,400, he said.

Whether the Depot Street development signals a rebound for the blighted village, which has soldiered on in the shadow of the abandoned, toxic Keddy Mill for decades, remains unclear, according to local observers.

According to Windham Code Enforcement Officer Heather McNally, the new development comes as the quantity of construction permits authorized by the town is fast approaching pre-recession levels. The town issued 1,323 total permits in 2005. Permitting bottomed out in 2010 at 733. In 2014, there have been 1,315 permits issued, far exceeding the 1,002 issued the previous year. McNally said the Depot Street development fits nicely into the trend of increasing construction.

South Windham, with its relaxed “Village Commercial Overlay” zoning and public sewer mains hooked into the Portland Water District system, is well suited for relatively low-cost development. Cummings said he picked the site in large part because of the sewer, natural gas and water infrastructure available. Cummings, who rents 20 buildings in the area, said he also saw local demand for fairly priced housing.

“When I advertise one for rent, I can gauge the calls and what the demand is,” Cummings said.

According to Ben Smith, Windham’s planner, the public sewer infrastructure lends itself to high-density development, since it eliminates the need for large leach fields. Yet, Smith, said it’s unclear if Cummings’ investment is a sign of things to come.

“Between the very liberal zoning and the high level of public infrastructure in South Windham, the town again has kind of set the stage for private investment to occur,” Smith said. “I think that’s what we see with the (Cummings’) property and I hope there’s more of it going forward.”

“I’m not surprised that that project is happening,” Smith added. “I don’t know why there aren’t more.”

If anything, said Paul Penna, a 30-year resident of South Windham and the principal of Bonny Eagle High School, the Depot Street development represents the continuing evolution of the village from mixed use to primarily residential. Penna said the area was more “rough” when he moved in during the 1980s.

“There have been some nice houses developed in the Depot Street area,” Penna said. “If you drive up Depot Street, there have been upgrades, as opposed to when I moved here it was a desperate area.”

Penna said he hopes the new multi-unit housing will attract businesses to the area. According to Bartell, a strong residential neighborhood could be the foundation for a revived commercial district on Main Street.

“For any village to survive, the number of residents who are there needs to be maintained and grow if it’s possible, so it can attract those mom and pop stores, those convenience stores, and small retail,” Bartell said. “Those residents can also support manufacturing and light industry in the area, and they could literally walk to work if they are so lucky as to be able to have a job and live in the village.”

According to Linda Griffin, executive director of the Windham Historical Society and a real estate broker, South Windham has a long way to go before it returns to the vitality of its heyday as a manufacturing and commercial village.

“It was a thriving village,” Griffin said. “Now it’s just a sleepy little crossroads. It’s pretty shabby now, but it used to have everything there. It was just a busy, busy place. Not now.”

Cummings’ multi-unit housing development sits on the site of the former South Windham train station – a perfect emblem of the site’s bygone hustle and bustle, Griffin said.

“A lot of people commuted to Portland to jobs by taking the railroad,” Griffin said. “So it really opened up that area. There were mills there, and just a lot of commercial activity.”

Yet Griffin thinks the new Depot Street development could represent a turning of the page in the post-industrial village.

“I think it’s exciting that South Windham can change,” Griffin said. “Because it’s been a shabby village and now it looks like it might have some new ideas for the future.”

A team of subcontractors work to prepare sidewalks at a 12-unit building site set to go on the market on Depot Street in South Windham soon. After decades of blight centered on the adjacent Keddy Mill, officials and historians see the development as a positive sign.Photo by Rich Obrey Tom Goodheart, from GACO Plumbing and Heating in Buxton/Hollis, one of the subcontractors on the building project, works in the basement of one of the structures.