Plans put focus on fun at falls

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Port Lighting Systems was in the city Sept. 13 to test the possibility of installing a system to light the Saccarappa Falls to make it more of a downtown focal point. Dozens of people showed up to the testing to see the water bathed in red, purple, blue and yellow lighting.

Port Lighting Systems, based in Seabrook, New Hampshire, has installed architectural and event lighting across the country and gave Westbrook a test run recently. The Westbrook Environmental Improvement Corporation is looking into making it a permanent feature at the site.

WESTBROOK — Many may consider where Brighton Avenue in Portland meets Main Street in Westbrook as the gateway to the city, but Rob Mitchell sees Saccarappa Falls at Bridge and Main streets as the more notable entry to the downtown.

“When I cross Bridge Street, that’s my vision of Westbrook,” said Mitchell, a member of the Westbrook Environmental Improvement Corporation.

The 11-member group has for years been looking to make Saccarappa Falls more of a destination and focal point once Sappi removes its dams from the city stretch of Presumpscot River. Mitchell has plans to improve recreational access to the river and make the falls safer for kayakers and canoeists.

“In 2011 when I first heard of the dam project and the fish passage, I first started with the concept, this idea of increasing recreation and bringing recreation right to the heart of Westbrook,” Mitchell said.

Through an agreement with the Friends of the Presumpscot, the city and the Conservation Law Foundation, Sappi has agreed to remove its dams and install fish passages at Saccarappa Falls through this part of the river by 2021.

“The city has been interested in pursuing recreational opportunities and improvements” in that area, Mitchell said.

The idea, Mitchell said, is to improve access and safety to that section of the river. The area around the falls, he said, does not provide access to the water. The closest public access point north of the falls is off Lincoln Street and to the south, at Ash Street. Right now, Mitchell said, there is “no safe passage” from above the falls to below it.

That is why, once the dams are removed, he is looking into opening up that section of the river by smoothing a channel through the waterfall for tubing, kayaks and canoes. How that will exactly work is still being vetted.

“The idea that keeps coming back is smoothing the surface of the falls so it is less dangerous and to create a clear channel through the falls,” he said. The idea also includes terracing between the Bridge Street pedestrian bridge and vehicle bridge, where people can congregate and perhaps fish from.

“It’s going to be a place other communities will look at and try to emulate, but they can’t emulate it because we have that mile of riverfront along Main Street completely parallel,” he said.

The City Council last week approved at first reading the award of a $20,000 bid to McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group to research, design and evaluate putting in a whitewater feature and other improvements at the falls. Second reading is Oct. 2.

Sculpting the rocks along the falls into a kind of slide for kayaks, canoes, tubes and rafts to use will be no easy task, Mitchell said.

“It’s a very complicated site. We chose the site we did because we think it has the most potential to succeed, but because of all the criteria it has to go through, this is not for the faint of heart,” he said. “At the end of the day everything needs to be 100 percent successful. Fish passage has to be 100 percent successful. We can’t slow that down or impact that.”

City Administrator Jerre Bryant said the the dam surrender agreement recently was approved by the Department of Environmental Protection, but the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission still needs to sign off on it, a process that is underway.

Although a recreational feature is far from being formally designed, Bryant said from a timing standpoint it makes sense for that work to be done in conjunction with the removal of the dam.

“If there is any physical work the city will be doing in terms of a recreational feature, or recreational enhancement, that would be the ideal time to do it from a logistical standpoint and cost standpoint,” Bryant said.

The recreational feature may not be the only way the Westbrook Environmental Improvement Corporation will be looking to enhance the falls and its environs. Earlier this month, Stephen Noyes, another member of the group, spearheaded an effort to shine a new light on the falls by having Port Lighting Systems, of Seabrook, New Hampshire, test the feasibility of using architectural lighting to illuminate the pedestrian and vehicle bridges and splash the falls in shades of red, blue, purple and yellow.

“It really sort of brings out the beauty in those areas,” Noyes said of the architectural lighting he has seen in other communities.

Noyes said the trial run attracted 200 people to the falls.

“They were all excited about the potential for this particular area of town,” Mitchell said.

Several years back, Noyes lit up the falls for an inaugural ball for his sister, Colleen Hilton, who served as mayor from 2009 to 2016.

If the lighting project were to move forward, Noyes said the plan would be to put four to eight mounted fixtures on the bridge cascading light down onto the river, as well as lighting on the two bridges.

“This stuff is so programmable. I could program in from my cellphone. You can change colors, turn them on or off or add holiday or special event lights,” he said.

The effort would not be funded through tax dollars, but rather through Westbrook Environmental Improvement Corporation funding or from money from businesses, organizations or other entities, he said.

“I grew up in this town and we’ve turned our back to the river. It is such a feature. It is such a vocal point and we need to do what we can to accentuate that,” he said.

Michael Kelley can be reached at 781-3661 x 125 or mkelley@keepmecurrent.com or on Twitter @mkelleynews

The Westbrook Environmental Improvement Corporation has for years been looking into ways to increase access to the Presumpscot River by Saccarappa Falls and make it more of a focal point downtown.

The Westbrook Environmental Improvement Corporation is looking into the potential of improving access to Saccarappa Falls and is using Manchester Whitewater Park in Manchester, Iowa, above, as inspiration.

The Westbrook Environmental Improvement Corporation has for years been looking at provide better recreational opportunties along the Presumpscot River once the dams are removed and is using a whitewater park in Manchester, Iowa, as inspiration.

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