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Businesses optimistic as Downeaster rolls into Freeport, Brunswick

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Businesses optimistic as Downeaster rolls into Freeport, Brunswick

FREEPORT — Business owners and residents are hoping the extension of Amtrak Downeaster service to Freeport and Brunswick on Thursday will be an economic boon, but no one really knows what to expect.

“We haven't established any metric that can demonstrate success,” Sande Updegraph, Freeport station manager and former executive director of the Freeport Economic Development Corp. said. “All of the businesses are kind of waiting to see what traffic actually comes.”

The Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority estimates that a conservative average of 100 passengers a day will ride north of Portland, or about 30,000 or more a year.

“I do think we'll have heavy ridership in November, December, with the holidays and it being a new service, people will be curious,” Updegraph said. “Once we hit January, it will be the real test.”

The train is scheduled to make two round-trips a day starting Nov. 1, with a third planned after an addition is made to the Brunswick station for train layovers.

Although the future impact is unclear, some business owners said they are already seeing new customers.

Dan Collins, owner of A B Cab in Freeport, said he's had reservations booked for more than a week ahead of the new service for people planning getaways to area hotels and daytime shopping trips.

“It looks like it's going to be an exciting time for Freeport and Brunswick,” Collins said, noting that he'll have his cars ready to pick up passengers. “I don't have any question at all that it'll be bringing people to Freeport.”

Collins, who also worked on the Train Station Committee in Freeport and is riding the inaugural train Thursday, said a $100,000 advertising campaign by the rail authority in the Boston area has helped.

Freeport restaurant owner Dominic Petrillo, of Petrillo's, directly across from the train station platform on Depot Street, said he is "pumped" to have the train stopping in Freeport. He said hopes it not only brings people into town, but provides a way for local people to get out for the weekend.

"I think it's going to be great for Mainers," he said.

Portland businesses have benefited – at least anecdotally – since the Downeaster began service between Boston and Portland in late 2001, according to Godfrey Wood, chief executive officer of the Portland Regional Chamber. But it's hard to measure what the real impact has been.

"Certainly the ability to come to Portland by another method has helped businesses in greater Portland, but I can't quantify how much," Wood said, noting the train brings in customers for Maine's largest industry: hospitality and service. "I don't know what the expectations really were, but I think as traffic has grown, it has helped put Portland on the map."

Wood also said the Downeaster provides another way for people to commute to work in Boston and thinks people north of Portland will welcome the extension.

"I'm really excited about the service and hope it will be extending further," he said. "I think we'll see the demand for it proven very quickly."

Downeaster ridership has seen tremendous growth since its introduction, increasing by more than 15 percent in 2008 after additional stops were added, to about 530,000 passengers last year, making it the fastest-growing service for Amtrak in the nation, according to the regional rail authority.

Ridership appears to be on pace for another record year, according to NNEPRA, but scheduled track maintenance in Massachusetts could depress the numbers.

Although many of the passengers who currently ride the Downeaster are headed south to Boston, businesses in Brunswick are betting on the extension to boost tourism in an area hit hard by the closure of Brunswick Naval Air Station in May 2011.

Debra King, executive director of the Brunswick Downtown Association, said there's been a lot excitement about the Downeaster from the downtown community and that advertising has extended into the region.

"Local businesses have really come together and have some great offerings,” she said, referring to coupons, specials and Bowdoin College's maps encouraging people to tour campus. "We want them to take advantage of being downtown and certainly put our best face forward."

The town plans to have the church bells ringing to welcome the Downeaster, too, an old custom for trains servicing Brunswick, King said.

And although people are hopeful about what the train will bring to the town, King said people know only time will tell.

"I think it's sort of cautious optimism," she said. "We have no idea how many people we can expect on a regular basis. It's sort of a 'wait and see' with big smiles their faces."

Will Graff can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or wgraff@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @W_C_Graff.