Brunswick development 'hangs in the balance' with Amtrak Downeaster

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BRUNSWICK — After years of planning and debate, the $23.5 million Maine Street Station project is showing Brunswick residents tangible results.

The site, which constitutes the town’s last available acreage for infill development, has been a hive of activity all summer. Two of its six planned buildings are under construction and scheduled to open in September.

The largest building, its siding half-finished, looms over the adjacent railroad tracks, a picture that would act as metaphor if it could somehow be flipped upside down.

That’s because, right now, the project’s rail component – specifically the arrival of the Amtrak Downeaster and the success of the already operational Maine Eastern Railroad – is being touted by the town, and most recently the developer, as an important determinant not just for Maine Street Station’s viability, but its future.

In June, seven members of the Town Council visited Gov. John Baldacci to seek assurance that his oft-repeated vocal support for the Downeaster is backed by action. Ten days later, Hilary Rockett, of JHR Development, sent a letter to the governor telling him that “the success of Maine Street Station will depend” upon the Amtrak service.

“Maine Street Station has shovels in the ground,” Rockett wrote. “But our future hangs in the balance while we await the news of (the Downeaster’s) arrival.”

JHR’s link of the Downeaster to the success of the project is new, as is the developer’s seemingly ominous tone.

When JHR first began manipulating the project’s master plan into an actual site plan, it was criticized by many citizens for diminishing the size and prominence of the train station. 

JHR told critics that the train station wasn’t a focus of the project because it wasn’t its most marketable asset. On several occasions, when doubts about the Downeaster extension was in doubt – and it still is – JHR told residents that the project could succeed with or without the passenger service.

Mike Lyne, JHR’s project manager, acknowledged JHR’s new appreciation for train’s importance to the project. Echoing comments in Rockett’s letter to Baldacci, Lyne said the service would open up marketing possibilities to potential business tenants from Massachusetts. Rockett, meanwhile, told Baldacci that the success of a planned inn – once the centerpiece of the development – depends on increasing visitor access to Brunswick, “especially from Bostonians.”

The Downeaster now runs between Portland and Boston. Town officials hope the service’s extension would link Brunswick to Boston and make the town the gateway to the Mid-Coast region.  

“With a development this size, we need a lot of things to go our
way, even in a good economy,” Lyne said. “We certainly didn’t want to
give the impression that the (Downeaster’s arrival) was dire for the
project, but it’s one of the important pieces to the puzzle. Every little bit helps.”

While acting Town Manager Gary Brown warned against interpreting Rockett’s letter as anything but JHR lending support for the Downeaster, some councilors worried that it indicates JHR could be forced to delay future elements of Maine Street Station.

Town Council Vice Chairman Benet Pols said Monday that Rockett’s letter “seemed desperate,” but added that perhaps JHR was just attempting to market the property by available means.

“Maybe they’re trying to get a sense of optimism about the train so they can induce a partner (for the proposed inn),” Pols said. 

Lyne acknowledged that Maine Street Station is encountering hurdles, from a struggling economy and a weak lending market, to marketing the project to future tenants.

“We’re happy with how much we’ve accomplished,” he said. “But the fact is, we’re just finishing two buildings of a six-building project.”

Lyne said the two buildings under construction are 90 percent leased. Two tenants, the town and Bowdoin College, are also two of the project’s heaviest investors. Bowdoin will occupy all of Building 1 on Maine Street and a portion of the second floor of Building 3. The college is subletting some of that space to the town.

One of the other two tenants, Scarlett Begonias, is moving from Maine Street into Building 3, while Joe Byrnes is expanding his popular Irish pub from Bath.  

Meanwhile, the inn, which Rockett originally wanted to build first, still lacks an investor or management partner. Lyne would not say if the absence of either one would postpone or kill that part of the development.

“If we proceed with the inn (without an investor) it will be a personal decision by (Rockett),” Lyne said.

The Planning Board and Village Review Board on July 28 will begin reviewing JHR’s drawings for the building, but are not expected to take any immediate action.

Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 123 or