The BDN is exploring Maine’s housing crisis from every possible angle, from how it affects home prices, to what it means for Mainers across the state. Read our ongoing coverage here and fill out this form to tell us what you want to know.
BRIDGTON, Maine — Main Eco Homes signs dot the sites of former run-down buildings and empty lots in Bridgton, a western Maine resort town of 5,418 people. It’s a number that more than doubles when campers and summer home owners return.
The 16-year-old company is the brainchild of developer Justin McIver, 39, who is putting his imprint on the town where he was raised by investing to revitalize it. So far, the company has built more than 200 custom homes, 60 cottages in an age 55-plus community and 104 rental units with another 88 planned. He also has commercial buildings.
At a time when Maine housing is expensive and in short supply, the new apartments, homes and stores are attracting new residents, Town Manager Robert Peabody Jr. said. Bridgton, which lies about 40 miles northwest of Portland in Maine’s Lakes Region, has the infrastructure in place to handle the new residents and businesses and is in the process of completing an update of its sewer system.
“Main Eco Homes has had a very positive impact on the town,” Peabody said. “We need development.”
The Cumberland County town thrived in the mid-1800s through the early 1900s with felt, grist, woolen, dowel and saw mills. It also is home to Shawnee Peak, the oldest major alpine ski area in the state, which opened in 1937 and remains one of the most-visited ski slopes.
When the mill business died, the town’s bustle quieted as well. Having been raised in a low-income home in Bridgton, McIver saw opportunity in the town, which he calls a “hidden gem.” There are 10 lakes in the area, the ski resort and plenty of hiking trails, including ones that run through the downtown. Route 302, which travels through the town from Portland to the New Hampshire border, is the second-most heavily traveled road in the state.
“I love the town and want people to get whatever they need here,” McIver said. “And I want to show that you can make it here.”
He has big plans to help meet the urgent need for quality housing. The 135 acres he owns off Route 302 currently has 104 apartments, all rented. Over the next several years that development, Lakewood Drive Apartments, will include 88 more apartments, a bowling alley complex with several apartments above it, a recreation center, storage units and a spa.
The apartments, which have Wi-Fi, energy-efficient aspects such as a heat pump and access to a common fire pit, run $1,075 for a one-bedroom and $1,375 for a two-bedroom, plus utilities. That’s much lower than the $1,329 for a one-bedroom apartment in Portland or $1,839 for a two-bedroom unit, according to apartments.com.
Bridgton needs more $800 to $900 per month workforce units, Linda LaCroix, Bridgton’s community development director, said. But the new Maine Eco Homes apartments are bringing younger people into the area.
Half of the tenants in the Lakewood Drive Apartments are ages 18 to 29. Of the total residents, 61 percent are from Maine, including 8 percent from Bridgton. The remaining 39 percent are from out of state, LaCroix said.
“Many of the people work in Portland rather than Bridgton,” LaCroix said of the one-hour drive. “I think it is important to recognize that those people are driving to Portland every day.”
McIver’s commercial buildings are aimed at bringing new types of retail to Bridgton, including the Bavarian Chocolate Haus and Nora Belle’s wood-fired pizza. The 4,000-square-foot Gateway Project on the corner of Route 302 and Main Street will include Bridgton Brewing, a rooftop bar and five themed Airbnb spaces for rent including the Lakes Room and the Ski Room. That should be completed in late winter or early spring, McIver said.
Main Eco Homes employs 28 people, has $12 million to $15 million in revenue and is profitable, McIver said.
Despite his successes, things haven’t always gone smoothly.
When McIver submitted a plan to the town to build the 66-room Hotel Bridgton with a swimming pool and parking lot on the site of the former Saunders Brothers Dowel Manufacturing dowel mill plus an adjacent lot, he faced stiff opposition from some neighbors. They claimed it did not meet local ordinance standards, including for required setbacks and shoreland zoning. It turned into a four-year disagreement.
New signs popped up around town saying “Save Kennard Street,” one of the streets alongside the property. Bridgton’s planning board approved McIver’s application in June 2019, but the opponents quickly filed an appeal to the town, which agreed with the planning board’s decision. They then filed a complaint with Maine’s Superior Court, where the judge affirmed the decisions of the town’s appeals board and planning board in May 2021.
The opponents appealed that decision, sending the case to the Maine Supreme Court, where a judge affirmed the planning board’s approval in January. Town Manager Peabody said that despite vocal opposition, many people in Bridgton did support the project.
McIver acknowledged the delay was stressful, but it ended up with a positive twist.
“If I had been able to open during the pandemic, I would have been in trouble,” he said.
He is facing another difficult situation now. McIver owns a small parcel of land in the middle of town next to Bridgton Books. He has approval to build a commercial structure on it that could house two or three businesses. The lot has been empty for several years, so he decided to put the Music on Maine venue on it to hold free concerts for the community. It has been a big hit with residents.
“It has given Bridgton a shot in the arm and put life into the town,” Pam Ward, co-owner of Bridgton Books, said. “It has pulled the community together.”
Building community is McIver’s top goal, leaving him with the conundrum of whether to build on it or keep the music playing.
“This is not-for-profit and a way to unify the community and bring people downtown,” he said. “This will be a tough decision.”