South Windham: Mill deal in peril

A long-discussed mill redevelopment project in South Windham may be destined for the scrap heap.

Portland-based Hardypond Construction, the contractor behind the project at a former mill on the Presumpscot River, is unlikely to pursue the proposed development without tax-increment financing, project manager Bob Gaudreau said after the Windham Town Council on Tuesday rejected a request for a proposed TIF that would have helped finance the work.

Councilors David Nadeau and Thomas Gleason voted in favor of the tax-increment financing, but the other five councilors were opposed.

The proposal would have renovated the Mallison Falls mill building into more than 100 apartment units for “workforce” housing, according to Gaudreau. The work at the old industrial mill, which will need environmental cleanup, as well as electrical and sewer work to be considered viable for reuse, is not a financial risk many other developers would be willing to take on, Gaudreau said.

Tax-increment financing is a public financing method used to help fund projects in places where attracting development may otherwise be difficult.

“To see the council deny the project is very disappointing,” said Gaudreau, especially after nearly three years of working on the project.

The town had approved a contract zone to allow for increased density at the mill last June, and applied for a Community Block Development Grant to fund cleanup at the site in January.

Tom Bartell, the town’s economic development director, said redeveloping a mill such as Mallison Falls “requires multiple funding sources.”

Redeveloping an old mill, Bartell said, is unlike building a house on land that is clean and ready for building.

“There are many issues that need to be addressed,” Bartell said, referencing electrical, water, sewer and traffic issues at the site.

“All these issues need to be figured out before anything can be done in that facility,” he said.

The style of housing, which would have been targeted to young professionals, is important for community development, he said.

Bartell said he was “incredibly disappointed” the project did not pass. He said the town has no other plans for the mill building.

Gleason urged the council to support the proposal, saying otherwise the mill may remain vacant for decades.

Councilor Robert Muir said he opposed the proposal because it was not a good deal for the Windham taxpayer.

“I’m not as concerned the mill is going to sit,” Muir said.

Prior to the vote, state Rep. Patrick Corey, a resident of South Windham, spoke against the proposal, citing surveys that suggest affordable housing is not considered a priority among Windham residents.

The council should not “expect Windham taxpayers to foot the bill for a project that is not a priority for them,” Corey said.

In a much shorter discussion, the Town Council unanimously approved Hardypond Construction’s bid for $1,007,366 to renovate the former Maine Cedar Log Homes into the new South Windham Fire Station. The expenditure was approved by voters last year.