Scarborough Downs buyers hope to create 'community within a community'

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SCARBOROUGH — Scarborough Downs will host harness racing for at least two more years while the soon-to-be new owners of the property solidify their plans.

The 510-acre property and business are under contract to be purchased by Rocco Risbara III, a Scarborough native and resident, his brothers Bill and Marc, and a second set of local siblings, Peter and Richard Michaud.

The group is expected to close on the property in mid-January, and the project is looking at a 15- to 30-year build out, Risbara told the town’s Long Range Planning Committee Friday, Dec. 8. 

In the short term, a two-year lease is expected to be signed with the Downs’ current owner, Sharon Terry. The arrangement will preserve 60 or more jobs at the track, Risbara said. 

The development group, collectively known as Cross Roads Holdings LLC, is eyeing about 300 acres for development, but what is envisioned isn’t yet clear. The potential for a mixed-use area, including retail, residential and commercial lots, was discussed at Friday’s meeting. 

No purchase price was announced, but according to published reports, Terry  previously asked $7.5 million for the property, which includes the racetrack grandstand and clubhouse, barns, and outlying land.

The price is expected to become public after the sale closes. 

“For years, we sought after prospective buyers that were connected to the community and willing to work toward the preservation of our heritage,” said spokeswoman Denise Terry in a press release. 

Last spring, a group of Massachusetts-based developers that specialize in distressed properties and mixed-use projects bid to buy the property. That proposal fell through, leaving the way open for the Risbaras and Michauds to make the deal first reported in October and confirmed Dec. 7.

“We’re proud of what we’ve done, and we’re proud of this town,” Risbara said Friday of his family’s business, Risbara Bros. Construction Co. “We recognize (the Downs is) a pretty unique site, and when we realized it was available, we put a team together to go after it.”

In a letter to the committee, project engineer Dan Bacon, of South Portland-based firm Gorrill Palmer, said “this ownership group knows development; understands business and market demand; are local; and are committed to this project for the long term.”

Bacon, who is Scarborough’s former planning director, said “it’s a great mix of disciplines Rocky’s put together, and for a project like this, it takes all those different ideas and talents.”

A spokeswoman for the developers, Diana Nelson of Blackfly Media, said “what we want to get across is, we really want to do it right. People have been waiting a decade and don’t want to see another strip mall or box store. We’re listening, and have the right people at the table.”

Jay Chase, the town’s planning director, said the Downs property is in the crossroads district, and the purpose of the district is to foster collaboration between the town and developer, although 10 percent of the residences built on the property must be affordable housing.

Risbara said the project’s focus will likely change over time in line with market forces.  

“We want to build something people want,” he said, adding there will be a state of flux with what is popular, whether it be retail or residential property, during the years the project will span. 

A “conceptual conceptual” infrastructure plan, as described by Bacon, will also include plans for green space and natural areas. Open land may be a draw for potential residents and businesses, he said, in a development that includes mixed-use lots, residential and commercial areas. 

It allows flexibility and the potential for a “community within the community,” Bacon said.

The development team is slated to meet with the Town Council at a Jan. 3 workshop to discuss the plan and their vision of the project. 

“I’m happy a local firm is taking this on, with a vested interest in the town. To me, that is incredibly important,” committee member Allen Paul said.

“This is as impactful as you can get in the town of Scarborough,” said Susan Auglis, a member of the Planning Board and Long Range Planning Committee, who stressed she would like to see connectivity with the community in this project. “There will be some sacrifice on the part of a lot of people for the good of Scarborough.”

“A lot of gain, too,” Risbara added in response. 

Juliette Laaka can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or jlaaka@theforecaster.net.

Project engineer Dan Bacon, left, stands with Rocco Risbara III of Cross Roads Holdings LLC, during a Dec. 8 presentation to Scarborough’s Long Range Planning Committee on potential plans for the 510-acre Scarborough Downs property.

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