Setting the standard for ‘formula restaurants’ in Bridgton

By Gail Geraghty
Staff Writer

Alan Manoian hasn’t been asked yet to do a cost-benefit analysis on the economic impact to Bridgton of a McDonald’s Restaurant coming to town. But Manoian, the town’s community and economic development director, wishes they would be asked.

WHAT A BRIDGTON MCDONALD’S WOULD LOOK LIKE — Developer Mark Lopez says the Bridgton restaurant would resemble the new McDonald’s built on Minot Avenue in Auburn (pictured above). (Courtesy photo)

If so, he’d tell them the McDonald’s across from Hannaford supermarket on Portland Road (Route 302) will result in 40 jobs and have an annual payroll of $350,000, as developer Mark Lopez has said. It will fill a need and be easy on the wallet for a town with more low income residents per capita than any other town in Cumberland County. But, he would also point out that opening the door to McDonald’s will surely lead to more so-called “formula restaurants” like Burger King and Wendy’s over the next five or 10 years. And that the real cost to Bridgton will be an erosion of its real “economic engine” — its collection of distinctive, unique, locally-owned stores that has made it a seasonal residential destination for so many affluent people in a post-manufacturing economy. “We better be careful, or things could go in a direction that would not serve the best interests of the people of Bridgton,” Manoian said. First came Hannaford’s on Portland Road, five years ago. Then Hancock Lumber built across the street. Dunkin’ Donuts came next, followed by the opening of the Family Dollar Store this year. Manoian said the pace is accelerating fast and Bridgton is most definitely “on a trajectory” to become like North Windham’s Route 302 commercial corridor.

“It starts rolling and rolling and you get that intense, automobile-oriented, congested, air pollution-spewing corridor that is, yes, North Windham,” he said. “That is my professional opinion. And our site plan review ordinance and signage ordinance very much facilitate this.”

Bridgton’s Comprehensive Plan, adopted in 2004, sounded the warning as follows: “Without design standards in the Village, and along Routes 302 and 117, where commercial development is moving out from the Village, there is a strong likelihood that some of Bridgton’s character will be diminished by the addition of modern commercial architecture,” the Plan states. “There it is,” Manoian said. “And weignored it.”

Yet it is that very character, that sense of place, that the Comprehensive Plan states its residents so prize: “There is a new initiative to revive Bridgton’s role as a regional commercial hub that sees the town’s New England character as a real asset. In a sense, the town was saved from franchise, generic development by the activities in nearby towns. Bridgton can capitalize on its character and proximity to remarkable natural resources to be a unique commercial destination point.” And the Plan encourages entryway streetscape standards and access standards along Routes 302 and 117 “to keep Bridgton’s appearance looking separate from, say, Windham’s.”

MORATORIUM, ANYONE?

“I don’t know if folks want to go this far with this,” but Manoian said the option exists to slow everything down by enacting a temporary moratorium on the development of formula restaurants in town, to give planners time to beef up design standards for formula restaurants in the site plan review ordinance.

There is a precedent, he said — in the town of York, which six years agoamended its land use ordinance to ban fast-food restaurants in the commercial district. It has yet to be challenged, he said.

“The people of York decided that if we allow that kind of use with those standardized kinds of characteristics it is going to literally erode the real economic value, the distinctive, locally-owned quality. They recognized that formula restaurants would edge out local ownership, it would erode their brand, that the money would not be recirculated locally but would be carried out of the borders of the town,” Manoian said. Bridgton’s voters enacted a moratorium on new quarry development in June.

“And this (McDonald’s project) is causing even more of a public outcry,” Manoian said. “We need to find out the economic implications” of formula restaurant development “and ask, is there a way to amend our ordinance so that there’s a better outcome?” If the town chooses to make no ordinance changes, he said, it is saying in effect that “maybe a standardized, franchized anyplace ‘noplace’ USA will bring us more prosperity.”

Of course, he adds, the impact of a quarry operation isn’t the same as a Big Mac. And the potential exists for McDonald’s to cry foul, saying they are being discriminated against, especially after Brian Fram got a smooth approval for his Dunkin’ Donuts, another formula restaurant, Manoian said. Fram’s Dunkin’ Donuts franchises in North Conway, N.H. and Albany, N.H. have better quality signage, landscaping, curbing and parking than the one he developed in Bridgton — because in Bridgton, the requirements Fram had to meet weren’t as stringent.

“Frankly, Bridgton has developed a reputation in the development community, that the probability is there will be less requirements and fewer site-specific characteristics that must be in place for approval,” Manoian said, because of its less rigid design standards and an elected planning board that “really has wide discretionary authority” when it comes to interpreting them.

IT’S ALL IN THE SIGNAGE

Lopez, reached by phone on Tuesday, said he agreed to put a sidewalk in front of the project next to the Hancock Lumber access road, but his tenant is not willing to compromise on signage. McDonald’s wants an internally-illuminated plastic sign, while Manoian believes it’s highly important to encourage externally-lit signage in future development in the Portland Road corridor.

“The town’s rules don’t require a sidewalk but I told Alan I would put a sidewalk in, even though it goes nowhere,” said Lopez, a real estate developer whose company, ML Investments LLC of Kensington, N.H. also developed the Bridgton Family Dollar Store. Manoian said it’s been standard practice for 20 years for large-scale commercial developers to provide sidewalks connecting one development to the other. Manoian said he realizes the town “doesn’t have much standing” when it comes to signage, having allowed Hancock Lumber to erect a sign that’s nearly 100 square feet, “as big as the side of a house.” But despite what he calls the “mistakes” of the past five years, when development pressures first arrived along the corridor, “If McDonald’s went with an externally illuminated sign, that would be huge — and what a wonderful precedent that would set, and they would be the heroes of our town.”

Still, he knows it’s a lot to expect for McDonald’s to agree to be held to a different standard. Lopez said McDonald’s shouldn’t have to do something above and beyond what’s been required of others. “The town ordinances allow for an internally-lit sign, and that’s what the tenants want,” Lopez said.

McDonald’s is, undeniably however, going to set the standard for what is to come, Manoian said. “All we can do is say we’re looking for someone now to play a leadership role to set the new standard so we can make sure we do it right from this time on.”

Lopez said McDonald’s has hired the CoreStates Group architectural and design firm to come up with a design plan, but that the Bridgton McDonald’s will look “substantially similar to the McDonald’s on Minot Avenue in Auburn, a stucco-sided restaurant with awnings that opened in November of 2009 along with an attached Lil’ Mart. “Whether it will be stucco or cultured stone, it’s too early to speculate,” he said.

People concerned with the impact of strip commercial development often become fixated on the architectural style of the building, but what they  often don’t realize, Manoian said, is that what they are keying into is the signage.

“It’s the automobile-oriented development form of it, meaning individual buildings surrounded and separated from one another with a lake of asphalt and an overbearing internally illuminated sign that you can only see going 35 miles an hour,” Manoian said. “That is the root of what people are feeling in their guts when people say I don’t like the looks of this.” In the McDonald’s project area, the speed limit is transitioning from 40 miles an hour to 25 miles an hour going into the Village District, slow enough to allow for more human-scale signage, he said. The Village District begins at Mt. Henry Road, just a short distance up from the 1.75-acre McDonald’s project site. “The signage and the development pattern, buildings that you can only connect with if you’re in your car, so that it becomes this intense, urban, harsh, fast corridor — that’s the development form here that we are literally establishing” under current site plan rules, Manoian said.

LOPEZ RESPONDS

Lopez said McDonald’s is an American-owned company, while Hannaford’s isowned by a foreign company. And the Bridgton franchise owner could be a local person. “Mark Lopez didn’t wake up one morning and decide to bring McDonald’s to town,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for 25 years. I’m a good boy.”

He bought the land well before McDonald’s came looking around Bridgton, at several sites beside his, as well as some sites in the downtown. Bridgton has many national chain companies operating in town, including Rite Aid, Subway, and Mobil Oil Company, he pointed out. And as for the argument that McDonald’s contributes to an unhealthy lifestyle, he doesn’t buy it. “You can go into Rite Aid and buy vodka, or Hannaford’s and buy Hot Pockets or processed cheese or fried dough.”

As part of a separate state review by the Department of Environmental Protection, he said he has obtained an easement on eight acres within the same watershed to offset the impact of development of wetlands at the project site. If he receives approval, he plans to begin building next spring.

“The fact is that McDonald’s is going to bring employment to Bridgton and local tax dollars — that’s the facts,” Lopez said. “I think a lot of the arguments are based on emotion.”

A UNIFIED, SHARED VISION

It’s “pure economics,” however, that drives Manoian’s belief that both McDonald’s and the town would be best served by a project that allows itself to be shaped by the culture of Bridgton. If Bridgton’s Planning Board requires a quality design, with appropriate signage, landscaping and architecture, Manoian believes that Bridgton can absorb such development with a minimum of impact to its unique culture.

“As I walk the streets (the McDonald’s project) is the only thing that people most want to talk to me about — and I am hearing almost equal in intensity those that are opposed to it than those that are in favor of it — which shows me that there’s a divide here in Bridgton, and that we’ve got to develop a unified shared vision. So this could be very, very useful if we really handle the process well.”

Manoian, hired by the town in October of 2008, said his job is to give the board of selectmen, the planning board and taxpayers “high quality information and knowledge” about the many approaches they can take to economic development. Asked whether imposing a quality design on McDonald’s will be enough to save Bridgton from becoming another North Windham, he replied, “That is up to the taxpayers and the political leaders of Bridgton to decide. Not I.”

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