The state of Maine has the nation’s oldest population, the eighth oldest housing stock, low median income, and essentially no public transportation infrastructure. At the same time, the vacant and unused manufacturing spaces in once-thriving mill communities all across the state offer an opportunity for revitalization through mixed-use development of their downtown centers. To help the once-prosperous mill town of Sanford envision a future with walkable affordable housing and fresh economic contributors, the Maine Association of REALTORS® received a Smart Growth Action Grant to support a three-day charrette, or stakeholder-informed design session.
Trish Ohler, a Program Manager at the 5,000-member Maine Association of REALTORS® (MAR), explains that “MAR prides itself on longstanding advocacy for the value of housing choice and opportunity as essential components in a thriving economy. It also continually strives to create smarter alternatives to urban sprawl.” The region is fortunate to have a non-profit called the Workforce Housing Coalition of the Greater Seacoast (WHC) whose work in Sanford was supported by the REALTOR® Party grant. In this case, the municipality had already done a lot of advance leg work: redefining its zoning code, creating a Recreation Master Plan, and hiring a staff member focused on housing. By the time the WHC facilitated the design charrette in Sanford, says Ohler, “the event was a springboard for lots of good ideas that had already been percolating for a while.”
On the first day, participants went on a site walk of the mill complex, and submitted ideas, as well as perceived obstacles to development. The second day saw the professional team of architects and planners organizing and analyzing the community input, from which they created two plans, accompanied by a feasibility document, revealed at the end of the third day. About ten REALTORS® participated in the process, along with dozens of other local stakeholders.
Greg Gosselin, 2017 MAR President and a current member of NAR’s Housing Opportunities Committee, has been involved in infill development projects in several Maine towns in the past few years; he was on the committee that selected the old mill site as the focus of the Sanford charrette. “The work of the Workforce Housing Coalition is changing communities by providing a vision derived from community input. As REALTORS®, our involvement can help insure that future development includes both market rate and middle market housing.”
Rebecca Lapierre, a REALTOR® living and working in Sanford, and a committee member for the local charrette, agrees. “As a REALTOR®, I was able to advise on the type of housing that would work best for the mill area,” she says. “My professional expertise will have a real impact on this development, which will in turn have an impact on the future of Sanford.”
Since the charrette, the development in Sanford has been progressing swiftly, reports Ohler, with additional funding secured for Brownfield abatement, new interest in the former mill structures, and one being prepped for development, with plans for intown residential units and retail units underway. The civic leaders of Sanford have expressed their gratitude to the REALTORS® for their leadership and support. “This project was a great opportunity to bring REALTOR® knowledge and expertise into the community housing, planning, and development process,” says Ohler, “and the NAR Smart Growth funding was key to this collaboration.”
To learn more about how the Maine Association of REALTORS® is using its leadership, energy, and the resources of the REALTOR® Party to promote downtown revitalization and workforce housing, contact Trish Ohler at or 207-622-7501. See the final report on the Stenton Mill Revitalization Charrette.