The city plans to demolish International Woolen Mill’s dilapidated boiler house and stack along Pioneer Avenue. The area will be turned into parking spaces. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The International Woolen Mill, the largest complex in the heart of Sanford’s historic mill district, has sat empty and deteriorating for years. The buildings are riddled with broken windows, holes in the roof and a boiler stack that could crumble at any time.

But Regco Inc., the now-defunct and bankrupt corporation that owns the mill, walked away and ignored the city’s pleas to clean up the buildings and address the dangerous conditions.

“That leaves us as a community with this piece of no man’s land,” said City Manager Steven Buck. “It is going to sit and deteriorate and be a hazard within our community.”

Officials want to mitigate that hazard and build on the recent transformation in the city by cleaning up the property to pave the way for redevelopment.

In February, the city plans to take ownership of the mill through tax liens.

On Nov. 8, residents will vote on a $1 million bond that would give Sanford the money to match or leverage federal brownfields funding and other grants and loans.


This is the city’s next step in a long-term plan to redevelop its mill district, revitalize the downtown and address environmental contamination from the industries that once employed thousands of people along the Mousam River, according to officials.

Like other mill communities in Maine, Sanford’s history is inextricably linked to its industrial past. From the 1800s to the mid-20th century, Sanford was a vibrant city with sawmills and textile manufacturers. The economy was devastated in the 1950s when the mills closed, putting 3,500 people out of work. It has never fully recovered.

Other mill towns across Maine and New England have faced similar fates and in recent decades have redeveloped buildings into housing and business complexes. In Biddeford, the redevelopment of old textile mills sparked a revitalization that generated millions of dollars of investment across the city.

Now, city leaders believe it is Sanford’s time to harness that enthusiasm and find ways to clean up and reuse the old buildings through public-private partnerships.

The focus on improving the mill district coincides with the city’s efforts to invest in the downtown to spur economic development and activity. That work got a boost this year with a $25 million federal grant and $10 million in local and state funding that will be used to reconstruct roads and sidewalks in the heart of downtown, install energy-efficient streetlights, improve parking and extend the SanfordNet fiber-optic network to the downtown and mill district.

Back in the early 2000s, a city study identified the economic potential of redeveloping the 7.5-acre Sanford Mills Historic District, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. But there are an estimated 30 brownfields sites in the city, many of them in the mill district, creating a challenge that requires millions of dollars and many years to overcome.


The Environmental Protection Agency’s Brownfields Program provides grants and technical assistance to communities to assess, clean up and reuse contaminated properties. Brownfields sites are properties where redevelopment or reuse is complicated by the presence of a hazardous substance or contaminant.

“When you have old mills and old industries, there’s always a lot of consternation about those properties because if they’re not contaminated, they’re perceived to be contaminated. It’s an impediment to having folks redevelop these properties,” said Nick Hodgkins, the coordinator of Maine’s brownfields program.

Sanford officials hope to use federal brownfields funding to clean up the deteriorating International Woolen Mill. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

In many cases, there is so much uncertainty about how much it could cost to clean up a brownfield site that private developers won’t take the risk, Hodgkins said. But when municipalities or other entities like regional planning commissions make that investment, it makes redevelopment more enticing to developers.

That redevelopment can be a catalyst for other activity in a community, Hodgkins said. After the town of Dover-Foxcroft used brownfields money to clean up the former Mayo Mill, a developer turned it into apartments, a café, data center and boutique hotel. Since that redevelopment, other new businesses have opened in the community, he said.

Since 1994, the EPA has awarded more than $129 million in brownfields funding in Maine. In Lewiston, those grants and other federal funds are being used to remove asbestos and other contaminants from Bates Mill No. 5. Developer Tim Platz, who redeveloped the rest of the Bates Mill Complex, has signed an agreement with the city to buy and redevelop the building.

In Biddeford, the city has used brownfields funding to clean up a former industrial site on Laconia Street that once housed mill buildings used for storage and to clean up the Lincoln Street property where the MERC trash incinerator operated.


Brownfields grants also have been used on mills and tanneries in other Maine communities, including  Bucksport, Camden, Augusta, Berwick, Brewer, Hancock and Lubec. The money also has been used to create green space, boat landings and affordable housing, Hodgkins said.

Sanford has been applying to the EPA Brownfields Program since the early 2000s, said Beth Della Valle, the city’s planning and development director. The city’s first big success using that money to spark redevelopment came at the Sanford Mill, which was at one time used to manufacture fabrics, light bulbs and plastic products.

“The private sector is not going to touch (these properties) until they’re clean,” Della Valle said.

The city, which plans to take ownership of the International Woolen Mill in February, has been concurrently working on improving the mill district and downtown to spur economic development. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The Sanford Mill, built in 1915, had a range of environmental contaminants, including semi-volatile organic compounds, PCBs, lead-based paint and asbestos. The city used a brownfields grant to assess the property, then acquired the Sanford Mill and adjacent Aerofab Mill by eminent domain, a power given to governments to take private property for public use. The city council then transferred ownership of the properties to Northland Enterprises through a public-private partnership.

From 2008 to 2013, Sanford used more than $3 million in EPA grants to clean up the property. Northland Enterprises did an extensive renovation to transform the building for residential and commercial use, reopening in 2013.

“These are long-term commitments to disentangle ourselves from our historic dirty past,” Della Valle said. “No one realized at the time we were operating these industries that we were generating a bunch of contaminants we would want to get rid of.”


The city currently is working on the Stenton Trust Mill complex, which sits prominently on River Street. In 2017, the five-story back building was destroyed in a massive fire set by three local boys. The city worked with the EPA to take down the building and remove all hazardous materials in 2018.

Della Valle said the city is now in talks with a private developer who has an option to buy the property and would like to put 97 market-rate housing units in the front tower. She cannot yet publicly identify that developer but expects plans to be submitted to the city in the next few months.

If voters approve the bond in November, Della Valle anticipates the city will take a similar path forward for the International Woolen Mill. This fall, the city will apply for brownfields funding and look for other opportunities for grants on the regional and national levels.

The city plans to demolish the ruined boiler house and stack, but will need to maintain the adjacent retaining wall that holds up Pioneer Avenue. That section of the complex will then be paved to create 127 parking spaces to help address the lack of parking that has been a deterrent to the private investment needed to redevelop the area, Buck said.

Richard Stanley, president of the Sanford Springvale Chamber of Commerce, sees opportunity in the old mill buildings and the potential ripple effects for other businesses in the city. If there are more people living within walking distance of downtown, there will be more demand for small businesses and restaurants, he said.

“They did it in Biddeford,” he said. “We can do it in Sanford.”

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