Mill land sale prompts citizen petition drive to change process

POSTCARD of the Cumberland Hotel, one of the more notable hotel buildings in Bridgton's past.
Editor's note: The Bridgton Historical Society has been intrigued by the on-going conversation about the proposed new hotel in Bridgton. Please note that BHS is not taking an official position on the proposal before the town, but is simply trying to get accurate information into peoples' hands.
By Margaret Reimer
President of the Trustees
Bridgton Historical Society
During this time when folks in Bridgton are discussing the possibility of a hotel being built in downtown, emotions are running high as fears about the changing nature of Bridgton's center village is discussed.
How much change can the town tolerate?
What should new construction look like and where should it be located?
All of these are good questions, so the Bridgton Historical Society went back to its archives to look at the history of the hospitality industry in our town. The Society is not advocating any position on the current proposal, but thought that this little tour through history of lodgings might add substance to the conversation.
The very first permanent resident of Bridgton, Benjamin Kimball, not only operated the sawmill that was required by his contract with the proprietors, but also opened his log cabin home as a tavern, which in the terms of the 18th century meant not only providing food and beverages, but also lodging. The log cabin structure along the shores of Long Lake was undoubtedly lacking in amenities, but given the unpeopled nature of the rest of the new community, it was probably a welcome haven. I suspect many of those who ventured to Bridgton to scope out potential new home sites spent their first nights in town in Mr. Kimball's beds.
In 1789, William Sears moved to the little community that now stretched along Stevens' Brook down to Long Lake and proceeded to use his considerable wealth to purchase several significant parcels of land in Bridgton's center village. At the top of Main Street hill, he built a large building known as Sears' Tavern, which operated similarly to the Kimball establishment, providing both hotel rooms and dining. In a pattern that was to be repeated throughout the 19th century, Sears also built a conveniently-located livery stable, as well as a store, attempting to create a full-service business in one location. Since South High Street was the primary overland entry to the town, the tavern undoubtedly prospered.
Richard Gage purchased the prospering tavern business in the early 1800s and renamed the it the Eagle House. The establishment burned in the 1830s and was rebuilt by a Mr. Hayden and rechristened the Pondicherry House. In turn, this inn burned in 1859. Fires, particularly along Main Street, have repeatedly reshaped the look of Bridgton's downtown, particularly since builders have generally relied on wooden structures.
When Richard Gage lost his tavern to fire, he bought the home in which he had been born, across the street from the old tavern, and used this childhood home as the new Gage's Tavern. A later generation of the Gage family replaced the old building with a new hotel structure and renamed it the Bridgton House, beginning a nearly 150-year history of lodgings being available at this location.
Mial Davis bought the business and enlarged the hotel in the 1860s, starting to attract a large and loyal clientele, thus becoming the first hotel to serve the post-Civil War boom of summer rusticators. Amongst the visitors was Maine's great poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whose signature in the hotel register is still on display at the Historical Society Museum at 5 Gibbs Avenue.
In 1896, after the hotel had been purchased by George Newcomb, the structure burned to the ground, with only the stable, piggery, and the hotel's bowling alley surviving the conflagration. Newcomb purchased the next- door lot, moved the store that had been there across Main Street and built a new inn, the Bridgton Hotel, designed by John Calvin Stevens, on the newly enlarged lot. The new hotel was the height of turn-of-the-century luxury, with 74 guest rooms, complete with running water for the bathrooms. Its grand opening brought dignitaries of all stripes to town for the celebration. Unfortunately, fire struck a second time in 1914 and 90% of the hotel burned to the ground. The remaining structure was salvaged and modified into a single-family home. The old hotel's lovely porches still grace the building, which is still known as the Bridgton House.
In the mid-19th century, Walker's Tavern, a second notable center village hotel, was located in the old Joseph Walker home, which had been purchased and enlarged by John Fowler. This large structure is located at the corner of Walker Street and Main and has been used as apartments since the mid-20th century.
Farther down Main Street, where the new Chalmers building is located, was the Cumberland, which next to the Bridgton House was the town's most notable hotel. Originally a large family home, this hotel on the corner of Bacon Street was increased from two stories to three by John Fowler, and like the Bridgton House, offered multiple services including livery services and a carriage that made regular runs between the narrow-gauge railway and the hotel. The hotel's large wrap-around front porch and columned balcony were a fixture on Main Street. Economic downturns and changes in the needs of summer visitors left the hotel frequently underutilized and by the mid-20th century, the hotel had been converted to apartments. The structure was removed in the 1960s to make way for a Dairy Queen. Recently, that building was removed to make way for the new Chalmers building, and during construction the granite foundation stones of the old hotel were visible for a time.
During the 20th century, more city-folk longed for the comforts of small town summer life, Bridgton's inns moved away from downtown. Low-cost camps near lakefronts attracted families, who tented or rented individual cottages for their week of summer relaxation. Typical 1930s-style lodging aimed at the new motoring public, like the Blue Goose, cropped up along Route 302. Later, vacationers in the post-World War II era began to snap up lakefront lots, developing camps and summer homes that have lined our lakes for more than 60 years.
Since the 1980s, bed and breakfast establishments have added to the available vacation lodging options. Additionally, several campgrounds have opened and many summer visitors enjoy parking their RVs near the lakes for summer vacations.
As trends in vacationing continue to change, there has been increased demand for more options in lodging, including full-service hotels located near the heart of the village. The conversation about what those options should look like and where they should be located is a good thing for our community.
The Bridgton Historical Society hopes that this brief discussion will help the conversation along.

By Wayne E. Rivet

Staff Writer

The sale of town-owned property at the Saunders Mill site to the developer of a proposed 68-unit hotel has sparked a petition drive to require a competitive bid process.

In question is Bridgton selectmen’s decision to sell .75 acres (town-owned), which was used by the former dowel mill as a storage place for logs, to developer Justin McIver. Selectmen chose to use authorization granted by voters in approving Article 29 at the annual June town meeting (2017) to dispose of surplus property.

Article 29 reads, “To authorize the Board of Selectmen to sell town-owned land that the Board of Selectmen has determined to be surplus, and to conduct the sale of such land by sealed bid, public auction or through an agent or multiple listing, whichever the Board of Selectmen deems to be in the best interest of the town, and to deliver a quit-claim deed to the successful purchaser. The net proceeds of any sale shall be deposited into the town’s General Fund.”

McIver, owner of Main Echo Homes, approached selectmen on March 27 to purchase the parcel, which Town Manager Robert Peabody described as “rear land accessed by an easement over an abutting property.” An unsolicited offer was made and discussed by selectmen in executive session, which is allowable under state law. A counter offer and conditions were put forth, Peabody said. Ultimately, the town sold the property for $20,000.

Peabody noted that the “town did not accept the full offer and did not convey the land along the Mill Pond.” Those who organized the petition drive claim the property was sold below market value, and failed to give abutters an opportunity to submit a bid on the property.

“No appraisal was done, though the following considerations come into play — rear land, limited access, probably only of value to an abutter, Shoreland Zoning impacts,” Peabody said in questions e-mailed by The News. The town manager also noted that the .75 acres was not assessed as a separate parcel.

At their advertised April 11 meeting (agenda materials are public documents, the manager noted), selectmen voted 5–0 to sell the property and directed Peabody to sign a purchase and sales agreement (public record). A quit-claim deed was issued.

Tom Smith, who owns property on Kennard Street, called into question the sale (see guest column regarding the hotel project in this week’s print edition).

“As the property was not advertised in The Bridgton News or publicly made known to be for sale; abutters with a strong interest in acquiring this land had no idea it was available, despite provisions for such public notification in the town ordinance. Given the interest in this property, it is also likely the town may have sold it for a better price,” Smith said.

While Board Chairman Greg Watkins said officials handled the sale in what their view was in the “best interest of the town,” Selectman Robert McHatton, who voted to sell the property but was recovering from surgery at the time of the initial executive session, believes the process used “certainly leaves a cloud on the (log yard) sale…No doubt about it.” McHatton also pointed out that selectmen have used the same process numerous times during his long tenure in either disposing of town-owned land or reaching agreements on “swaps” of parcels with abutters.

Last week, a group of local residents gathered signatures to place the following article on this June’s annual town warrant:

In regards to disposing town-owned surplus properties, “All town-owned properties to be sold shall be sold by announced auction and shall be advertised in The Bridgton News, on the town website and via all social media platforms controlled by the town for a minimum of 30 days. The minimum sales price shall be no less than 70 percent of market value. Abutters shall be given written notice.”

To be included on the warrant, 239 signatures were required on the petition, and the petition had to be submitted by this Friday, April 13. At press time Wednesday morning, the petition had yet to be received.

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