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The Renaissance begins in York Beach

By Jennifer L. Saunders

Don Rivers of Rivers by the Sea, project developer for the Atlantic House and Kearsarge House renovations in York, beams as he talks to a crowd of well-wishers at the official groundbreaking ceremony for the Atlantic House, held Tuesday afternoon. With Rivers is nationally-known Chef Lydia Shire, who will bring her restaurant Blue Sky to the new Atlantic House. Rivers explained that Shire chose the artwork for her restaurant over a year ago, shown here, because the image called to mind the York Beach of days gone by.
Photo by Jennifer L. Saunders

YORK BEACH - Standing before the Atlantic House, Greater York Region Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Cathy Goodwin described a sentiment many have probably felt as they passed the derelict Victorian-era hotel.

"What a shame," Goodwin said of the once-graceful structure that, in recent years, has been boarded up against the elements, often described as a potential firetrap in the very center of York Beach.

On Tuesday afternoon, Nov. 21, however, Goodwin was focusing not on the years of vacancy for the historic building, but on the dawning of its new era as a destination shopping, dining and residence center, and as part of the official start of the York Beach Renaissance.

In fact, renowned Chef Lydia Shire was on hand as well, speaking of her excitement at bringing a new restaurant - Blue Sky - to the Atlantic House.

"Welcome to York Beach Square," Goodwin told the dozens that gathered to witness the official groundbreaking ceremony for both the Atlantic House renovation project, which is currently underway, and the Kearsarge House project, which has not yet begun.

The event was a chance for project developer Don Rivers and owners Harold Anderson and Lorri O'Brien to thank all those who helped make their vision a reality.

Speaking from the perspective of the chamber and the York Beach Renaissance Committee, Goodwin said that while most residents and visitors were shaking their heads and saying "what a shame" as they passed the building, Rivers and his associates had a different idea.

They looked at the Atlantic House and said, "What an opportunity," Goodwin told the crowd.

The $12 million dollar redevelopment project is expected to create about 50 new jobs. Rivers, who owns the locally-based Rivers by the Sea, has stated throughout the town approval process that the goal is to return the Atlantic House and the nearby Kearsarge House, which is home to Shelton's and Gabby Sullivan's, to their Victorian-era splendor while updating their uses.

Among those who gathered for Tuesday's event were Town Planner Steve Burns, Code Enforcement Officer Tim DeCoteau, Town Manager Rob Yandow, Selectman Mike Estes, Barrie Munro of the Planning Board, York Beach Fire Chief David Bridges and Capt. Mark Gay as well as members of the York Beach Renaissance Committee, residents and beach business owners.

The ceremony also included a blessing of the project by Rev. John Skehan, pastor of St. Christopher's Roman Catholic Church.

The development plans include 30 residential condominium units, 7,000 square feet of renovated retail space and the opening of two new restaurants and a even a bakery owned and operated by Shire, who is the nationally-known chef/owner of Lock-Ober's restaurant in Boston, Mass.

When Shire spoke at the ceremony, her enthusiasm for the town and for the restaurant she will bring to the renovated Atlantic House was met with great enthusiasm from the crowd.

Like Don and his wife Mary Rivers, Shire said, she has fallen in love with the Victorian-era building and with the town of York itself.

"You can expect a whole lobster section on our menu," Shire said, describing her restaurant and bakery as a place that will serve everything from delicious entrees to hot doughnuts with maple glaze. "We're going to make it very approachable for everyone."

The project team has also pledged to work to fill the retail space with stores to bring unique products to York Beach.

Selectmen Chairman David Marshall was among those asked by Rivers to offer a few words on the occasion.

"Personally, I just love living in the town of York," Marshall said, describing the feeling of coming home to York and of the many good things that have happened for the town in recent years. "� Now it's York Beach's turn. � What's happening here is an eye-opening symbol of what is to come."

That sentiment was echoed by many of those in attendance.

"Thank you for doing this," Dawn Fernald of the York Beach Renaissance Committee told Rivers and the project team, adding that the renovations represent a "milestone in the renaissance effort in York Beach. � Hats of to all who helped make this happen."

Construction Manager John DeStefano also spoke at the event, referring to a sign that had been displayed outside the Atlantic House throughout the planning and approval process for the project.

"We hope to turn that 'Good Luck, Don' sign," he said, "into well done, Don."

As construction continued behind him within the Atlantic House, Rivers added some humor to the moment when he asked, "Did everyone find parking?"

The reference was to the long discussions on parking constraints held as part of the town's project review and approval process before the Planning Board. While traffic and parking woes seemed a distant memory in the all-but-vacant business district on a chilly November afternoon, whether there would be enough parking in York Beach during the busy summer season with the addition of the new restaurants and businesses was a key issue in the approval of the project.

"Thanks to everybody for sticking with us," Rivers said, including the York Beach business owners, the Old York Historical Society, town officials and boards, the Historic District Commission and the local police and fire departments.

After throwing the first ceremonial shovels of dirt, the event continued with a champagne/cider toast at Gabby Sullivan's, complete with entertainment by Lex and Joe.

As Goodwin put it, with York Beach poised on the brink of many opportunities as the work of the Renaissance Committee continues, the event marked "a really exciting day and a really exciting moment."

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Copyright © 2006 The York Independent

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