As Sappi Fine Paper works on that project, the city plans other upgrades to make the downtown a recreational hub.
By Leslie Bridgers, Staff Writer
Portland Press Herald news story
Alewife festivals draw thousands to the Damariscotta Mills fishway, and rafters from around the region flock to The Forks for the whitewater rapids. In the heart of Gardiner, anglers have to elbow their way into the fishing hole at the mouth of the Cobbosseecontee Stream. Now, imagine them all in one place.
That’s what some think downtown Westbrook could look like in the not-so-distant future.
By 2017, if all goes according to plan, alewives, shad and herring will swim up Saccarappa Falls for the first time in more than a century, while paddlers will get unfettered access to the 29-foot vertical drop.
The Bridge Street bridge where cars now pass over the Presumpscot River will become a walkway where restaurants can set up outdoor seating and pedestrians can watch the activity in the water below.
“All of these pieces really fit very nicely together and give people from the Greater Westbrook region and southern Maine a reason to come here,” said Bill Baker, the city’s director of business and community relations.
The linchpin of the plan is the removal of a hydroelectric dam that’s long provided power to the Sappi Fine Paper mill – once the pillar of the city.
By opening up the falls to boaters, as well as fish, the city hopes to create a recreational hub in the middle of its downtown and make a new name for the former mill town.
Sappi initially planned to build a fish ladder over its Saccarappa Falls dam to meet a requirement by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which ordered the company over time to create access for migratory fish through several of its dams on the Presumpscot. The ruling followed a years-long battle between the paper company and environmental groups.
As the 2015 deadline for the Saccarappa Dam fishway approached, the city and environmental groups asked the company to consider removing it to create a natural passageway instead.
When Sappi crunched the numbers, it turned out shutting down the dam would be in its best interests, too.
After agreeing to surrender its federal license to generate power at Saccarappa Falls, Sappi was given a two-year extension to create the passageway.
With input from the city, environmental groups and the public, the paper company is working on a design for the falls that will allow fish to go up, kayakers to come down and Westbrook to become a place people want to visit.
Growing public interest in the project was evident last month at a packed meeting at Westbrook High School that Sappi held to give an update on and get input for the design. About 50 people attended from as far away as New Hampshire, identifying themselves as paddlers, fishermen, environmentalists and parents.
Caeli Shadis, a Portland resident who used to live near the Damariscotta Mills fishway, said an educational program about migratory fish has drawn busloads of students to that area. She asked Sappi and the city to consider adding a similar component to the Westbrook site.
Barry Stemm, project manager for Sappi, said the company plans to have a final design by the summer in order to meet its completion deadline of spring 2017.
At same time those plans are in the works, other upgrades to the city’s downtown are moving forward.
Bids are due Wednesday for a Department of Transportation project to build a new bridge on Bridge Street and turn the existing one into a pedestrian bridge that would overlook the falls.
At the same time, the city is looking into extending its Riverwalk, which now runs along the southern bank of the Presumpscot, to the other side of the river.
Then there are the amenities that are already in place.
Ramps with floating docks were installed on the river in the spring of 2013 and quickly put to use by fishermen.
Ron Kriesman, attorney for the Friends of the Presumpscot River, said if the passageway allows fish to successfully repopulate the river, it should become an increasingly popular spot for fishing – the “surest way” to bring economic development to the downtown, he said.
Soon after the docks were installed, the city started renting out kayaks and paddleboards, a program taken over by Portland Paddle last spring.
Zack Anchors, co-owner of Portland Paddle, said the season was a success and provided a “real nice, peaceful place for people to paddle,” especially families.
He imagines that adding whitewater features to the river would be a huge attraction.
“There’s not a lot of whitewater kayaking destinations within a short driving distance of Portland,” he said. “I think it would draw a lot of people to Westbrook from all over New England.”
Baker said there are more ideas out there about recreational features in the downtown. Snowmobilers want to be able to ride from trails to restaurants and gas stations, something that the new pedestrian bridge might make possible, he said. There’s even been talk about a zipline that would dump into the river.
“I think the possibilities are endless,” he said.