WESTBROOK – Spring, the season of new beginnings, could not have been exemplified better than with the celebration of the three new floating docks on the Presumpscot River Monday afternoon.
“It’s so exciting. We’re taking back the river,” said Westbrook Mayor Colleen Hilton at a celebration under a perfect blue sky.
For Hilton and Bill Baker, Westbrook’s assistant city administrator for business and community relations, installation of the ramps and floats is the culmination of one project – breathing new life into the river – and a mile-marker for a bigger project – improving the downtown area.
Jeff Riddle, a teacher at Windham High School, was on hand for the docks’ grand reveal with students from his outing club. He said the only thing the Presumpscot River is missing for recreation purposes is a whitewater wave park, something local kayak enthusiast Rob Mitchell has been itching to bring to Westbrook for years. Riddle said the park would bring in more money and draw more people onto the waterway.
“To have access in the middle of the city is very impressive. It took us less than 15 minutes to hook up our trailer and launch here. This is really exciting for our outing club. We can practice skills we learn in the classroom right here,” said Riddle. “The wave park would make Westbrook a known place.”
“This [the docks] is allowing people to see the next level. To me, this is the starting point. There’s a lot of opportunity here and a lot of people really excited to have access,” Mitchell said.
Maria Dorn, director of community services, said there will be 12 kayaks and two paddleboards available to rent this summer.
The floating docks are located at the end of Ash Street, near the back of Riverbank Park and on the other side of the river near the site of the community gardens.
While not necessarily an improvement that will change the city immediately, a small tweak in the city’s mobile vending ordinance by the City Council will allow food trucks, under special exemption, to stop in a public way and sell their offerings.
So far, Westbrook has only two ice cream trucks, one food truck, called the Weenie Wagon, and one food pushcart, but the change may be incentive for more food trucks to get their license in Westbrook and operate during large community gatherings, like the upcoming Together Days.
Since the ramps and floating docks were installed on Friday, families have been seen having picnics or sitting with their feet dangling in the water, and teenagers have been seen kissing on the wooden floating islands.
City Administrator Jerre Bryant said the city would look into adding additional trash receptacles along the Riverwalk to encourage people to throw out their trash and keep the area clean.
Legacy Publishing is also doing its part to improve the downtown area. The company will add 16 new public spaces to their front parking lot this summer, right next to the Riverside Park, off Main Street. The city has agreed to pave the lot for the company in return for use of the spots, available during the day, said Jim DeWolfe, president of Legacy Publishing. The remaining 10 spots in the lot will be reserved for the employees.
Westbrook downtown revitalization is moving forward on another front, as well, with approval of the agreement between the city and the Elowitch family to raze the former Maine Rubber building on the edge of Main Street and the Saco Street Extension. The demolition of the building will change the landscape of the downtown and allow for a new, larger business on the site.
Pete Profenno, owner of Profenno’s Pizzeria, the longest operating business in the downtown, and two other buildings on Main Street, knows as soon as the Maine Rubber building comes down, his business will be the new focal point for traffic coming in to Westbrook from the west.
“When that goes down, the first thing people are going to see is my building,” Profenno said. “People coming down the street now will see this the minute they hit Westbrook. It’s going to look so much better. That’s why I want to fix up my buildings.”
He applied for and received a revolving loan fund grant for $50,000 to improve the façades on two of his buildings, including new roofing for the back end of the pizza shop, and new vinyl siding for the pizzeria and his new building, which now houses Xtreme Screen and Sportswear, right across the street.
“I’d like to buy more [properties in Westbrook]. I’m 78 and still feel like I want to do stuff,” Profenno said.
Elsewhere downtown, the Foote family, former owners of the American Journal, have recently gotten their property on Dana Street appraised.
Baker, who said he had met with several family representatives recently, said the long-dormant property had “some exciting potential.”
Family member Dan Foote had no comment.