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the York Beach renaissance
Written by Matt Kanner

Wednesday, 11 April 2007

numerous projects near completion at the beach

The icy fist of winter will not release its grip on the Seacoast without a fight, but town officials and business owners in York Beach, Maine, have long had their minds on summer. Redevelopment of the York Beach Atlantic House and construction of the new Union Bluff Meeting House top the list of major projects underway in the Short Sands area. But a number of smaller projects will also greet visitors as temperatures rise.

The beach's makeover stems in part from damage caused by the Mother's Day floods in May 2006, when high waters ruined oceanfront shops and destroyed their products. As the disastrous impacts of the flooding began to wane, many business owners decided to take advantage of the situation by revamping their establishments. Others cite York's growing reputation as a popular tourist destination as the primary reason for improvements.

�We're kind of special in that we have a downtown right on the beach,� said Joe Lipton, owner of Inn on the Blues on Ocean Avenue. �York Beach is a family-oriented place that offers many different things in many different price brackets.�

A local history buff, Lipton said York Beach began to experience a tourist boom in the 1980s. At the time, however, many of the town's buildings were in a state of deterioration. Last year's flooding sparked the type of renovations York needed to become an even bigger destination, Lipton theorizes. Yet the town retains the unique New England charm that has largely disappeared from other heavily developed beach communities in Maine. The clapboard art galleries, takeout windows, arcade and beachside parks lining the sandy shore have a distinctly nostalgic vibe.

Pending approval from the fire marshal, Lipton plans to open a new lounge on the second floor of Inn on the Blues. The lounge will seat about 40 people and will feature a deck overlooking the ocean. Couches and chairs will surround a new bar offering cocktails and light appetizers.

Extensive renovations are also near completion at Bill & Bob's jewelry store near Short Sands Beach. The store underwent a complete facelift over the winter, and owners will hold a grand reopening during the first week of May. Cathy Goodwin, executive director of the Greater York Chamber of Commerce, said the store will look completely different and will have a more upscale feel.

The Union Bluff Meeting House on Beach Street is scheduled to open in mid-July. The building replaces the historic York Beach Cinema, which closed its doors in September after 80 years of showing movies. The Union Bluff Hotel purchased the cinema in the late 1990s and tore it down in October to make way for the new facility.

According to event manager Darlene Yekura, the meeting house will include a function hall with capacity for up to 250 guests for weddings, conferences and other events. The three-story, 13,000-square-foot building will also have eight new hotel rooms, five of which are luxury suites. Yekura said she has already booked nine weddings and other events at the hall.

�I think there's quite a bit of interest,� Yekura said. �We're one of the larger places on the Seacoast and we offer an ocean view.� The Union Bluff Hotel has experienced a slight increase in tourism each year, although many guests are repeat customers who come every summer, Yekura said.

The Greater York Chamber of Commerce created a Renaissance Committee about three years ago with the goal of revitalizing the town's status as a tourist destination. The Atlantic House restoration project is one of two major undertakings spearheaded by the committee. Renovations to the century-plus-old building, located beside the Union Bluff Meeting House, have been ongoing for about four years.
Atlantic House project developer Don Rivers, of Rivers by the Sea, said the restored building will be completed by July and will include nine condominiums, a bakery, five retail spaces and a restaurant. Pioneering chef and restaurateur Lydia Shire will operate the restaurant, Rivers said, and retail spaces will include a wine and cheese shop and a new office for Rivers by the Sea.
Developers will take on a second project in October, restoring the nearby Kearsarge House to include 22 condominiums, five retail shops and a restaurant. Rivers expects the two projects to give the town a significant boost.

�(The Renaissance Committee has) been very successful in kicking the beach up a few notches and creating a more year-round destination for tourism,� Rivers said.

Surfers could also experience some changes at nearby Long Sands Beach this summer. A proposed amendment to the town's surfing ordinance would double the size of the 120-foot surfing zone during times when inclement weather provides ideal wave conditions and attracts large crowds of surfers to the beach.

Surfers initially pushed for an ordinance change that would have opened the entire beach to surfing when waves are high, but the York Board of Selectmen nixed that provision in favor of a simple 120-foot extension, Town Manager Robert Yandow said. Selectmen recently forwarded that amendment to the ballot on May 19, giving voters a chance to decide the surfing zone's fate.

The future of the 82-acre property currently occupied by York's Wild Kingdom zoo and amusement park, which stretches from Route 1 to the Short Sands area, remains unclear. Both Yandow and Goodwin, said they are still waiting to hear from developer Oscar Plotkin about his plans for the property. Plotkin, who is president of Berkshire Development in Springfield, Mass., has signed a purchase agreement with the owners of York's Wild Kingdom, but still has not bought the parcel.

During a community forum in August 2006, Plotkin visited York to collect feedback from residents about what they would like to see at the property. The developer said he envisions a pedestrian-friendly shopping area with retail stores, restaurants and perhaps an entertainment venue such as an aquarium, water park or skating rink. Yandow said Plotkin talked about returning to York for a follow-up meeting in April, but town officials have heard nothing further from him.

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Copied with permission from The Wire Copyright © 2007

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