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York Beach is not just a summer spot anymore

Mark Avery/Citizen photo A dining room in the Blue Sky restaurant at York Beach. The community is working to transform itself into a more business-friendly community in an effort to become a year-round tourist destination, not just a summer hot spot.

Staff Writer
[email protected]
Article Date: Sunday, February 17, 2008

The newly renovated Atlantic House Hotel, with its year-round restaurant, shops and luxurious condominiums, may represent the first of many changes at Short Sands in York Beach, Maine.

The renovation wasn't cheap � "$7 million and counting," according to developer Don Rivers.

But members of the York Beach Renaissance Committee said they agree the money represents a great investment that could entice other businesses to come to Short Sands.

Also, the Union Bluff Hotel completed a $3 million function hall last year in a building that had housed a cinema and meeting hall before it fell into disrepair. The new hall is located between the Atlantic House and Union Bluff hotels.

The 35,000-square foot Kearsarge Hotel at York Beach also will undergo extensive renovations, said Rivers, who owns the Rivers by the Sea real estate sales and rentals business in York.

Mark Avery/Citizen photo Developer Don Rivers talks on a phone in a condominium under construction at the Atlantic House Hotel in York Beach, Maine.
Rivers said all three hotels collectively will offer 30 new condominiums along with standard rental rooms.

The Atlantic House Hotel will offer nine condos that will sell for $700,000 each, he said.

The units, located on the second floor, offer ocean views, two gas fireplaces, two bedrooms and two large, flat-screen plasma television sets mounted on the living room and master bedroom walls. The bathrooms are to feature Jacuzzi tubs and $475 shower heads.

The owners either can rent the unit to other people or rent one room in each unit, he said.

"They're resort residences, is what we call them," River said.

The Blue Sky restaurant opened four months ago at inside the Atlantic House Hotel and is co-owned by Rivers and Lydia Shire. It also offers ocean views, upscale decor and a menu featuring plenty of Maine seafood and lobster dishes prepared by Chef Karl Mace and his staff.

The restaurant already has shown year-round businesses will succeed in the community � its weekend business has been strong, and the dining room was fully booked for Valentine's Day, Shire said.

Mace serves as chef for the Atlantic House Hotel as well as the Union Bluff Hotel, owned by Brent Merritt. He said he's very excited about the proposed changes at York Beach.

Rivers said the Atlantic House Hotel's first floor hosts year-round shops. The Sea store, which sells cosmetics and women's clothing, is already open.

Other businesses such as the Winey Sister, a wine and cheese shop, will open in the next few weeks, he said.

The hotel also will have a bakery offering coffee, pastry, cakes and breads.

Dawn Fernald, chairwoman of the York Beach Renaissance Committee, said the York Planning Board approved several proposed zoning ordinance changes in January that will make it easier for business owners to renovate properties, which will spur more economic development.

She said the York Board of Selectmen are to vote on the zoning ordinance changes as well as an overall revival plan, of which the changes are a part, on Feb. 25. If approved, the plan will go before York Town Meeting voters as a ballot question on May 10. If they approve it, a formal plan will go forward, Fernald said.

The plan, in addition to the zoning changes, calls for the creation of a town square and a buffer zone between retail and residential areas. The proposed zoning changes also could pave the way for a new plaza in the center of York Beach, additional bike racks and wider sidewalks, according to Fernald.

The village center zone would allow new businesses, such as a gas station or bank, to be located there in addition to gift shops, restaurants and other hotel and condominium developments, Fernald said.

She envisions Short Sands becoming more of a pedestrian-friendly walking beach offering year-round businesses to visitors and local residents.

She said it could be "much like Market Square in Portsmouth, where all the buildings come right up to the sidewalk," said Fernald, whose committee has worked on the plan since 2004.

The proposal also calls for the creation of a tax increment financing district, in which a percentage of property taxes paid by existing and new businesses at York Beach will be deposited into a town fund to pay for future capital improvements, Fernald said.

The fund will make it easier for the town to create the wider sidewalks as well as new lamp posts and other infrastructure improvements, she said.

Cathy Goodwin, president and chief executive officer of the Greater York Region Chamber of Commerce, also serves on the Renaissance Committee.

She said there are 100 acres of land behind York Beach village that could be developed in the future if the zoning changes are approved.

Goodwin said the plan also hopes to increase parking by creating more lots on the fringe areas of the village center. The committee has recommended expanding the current motorized trolley service to take visitors to the village center as well.

Goodwin said she's optimistic the town's estimated 9,000 registered voters will approve the plan.

The committee presented up to 200 letters of support to the York Planning Board calling for its approval.

Committee members said none of York Beach's existing businesses or its family-friendly environment will change even if the beach becomes more upscale.

"It will still be a family beach, but it will be nicer for the people who use it," Rivers said.

Some committee members say they're concerned about the future of York's Wild Kingdom, which traditionally has been a draw for more than 100 years. The zoo and amusement park's front entrance is located on Railroad Avenue, next to many longtime businesses such as the Goldenrod restaurant.

Oscar Plotkin, president of Berkshire Development, LLC, bought the Wild Kingdom's property in December 2005. He has said he's interested in maintaining some of the current zoo and amusement park, but his group also is interested in building condominiums and retail shopping on the property's Route 1 side.

Goodwin said she'd like to see the current zoo and amusement park remain, and that an aquarium and maritime museum featuring local history would be an added plus.

The committee has not done any formal studies to show how many more visitors and potential revenue year-round businesses at York Beach could generate. The plan also doesn't have any conceptual drawings, Goodwin said.

Goodwin said Merritt, the Union Bluff Hotel owner, was the first to offer a year-round restaurant to visitors seven years ago.

She said the Atlantic House Hotel's year-round businesses could serve as an anchor that will inspire other developers to come to York Beach.

"All boats rise with the rising tide," Goodwin said.

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