With three stops in Massachusetts, three in New Hampshire and six in Maine, the Amtrak® DowneasterSM (Brunswick – Boston) transports thousands of daily riders who contribute millions of dollars to local economies. Named for the “down east” region of Maine, the service made its first run on Dec. 15, 2001. Five daily round trips currently operate along the 145-mile route. Since 2005, the Downeaster has more than doubled ridership; in fiscal year 2016, it carried just over half a million customers.
Many of the communities along the route are experiencing economic growth as developers recognize the benefits of building close to public transportation. Having Amtrak near shopping and entertainment is a boon for developers.
According to the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority (NNEPRA), which provides funding for the service, the Downeaster transports more than 100,000 annual visitors to Maine, who contribute $29 million in economic impact. This includes visitors to the popular shopping destination of Freeport, where L.L. Bean’s flagship store has stood for more than a century.
In Saco, Maine, an old tannery mill across the street from the Amtrak station stood abandoned for decades. Eric Chinburg of Chinburg Properties in New Hampshire saw an opportunity to develop near the station in this town of 19,000. His company is currently converting the building, known as Saco Mill No. 4, into a mixed-use development that includes 150 apartments (scheduled to open in June 2017) and 4,000 square-feet of commercial space that will soon house a restaurant.
“We are in the business of converting abandoned mills, and the fact that it’s so close to an Amtrak station is a huge plus because we believe that many of our tenants will utilize the services of the train. When we advertise our new property, we talk about the convenience of living so close and being able to drive less,” said Chinburg, who also owns a property next to the Haverhill, Mass., station.
“This abandoned mill has been a blight on our community for decades, and we’re very excited to work with one of the premier developers to encourage growth and density in our downtown area,” said Kevin Sutherland, city administrator of Saco. More than $900 million in development projects are underway in Saco and nearby Biddeford, and they are expected to bring an increase in ridership on the Downeaster.
For Chris Thompson, owner of Thompson’s Point Development Co., developing land adjacent to the Portland station was also intentional. “The proximity to the transportation center was a huge factor for us in our initial decision to develop here,” he said.
In December 2016, Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling attended the groundbreaking at Thompson’s Point, where more than $105 million is being invested into the industrial site to create a sports and entertainment complex.
“We’re starting to see a revitalization here and it’s very exciting. We already have a number of small businesses, an ice skating rink and a concert venue on the water. All of this borders on the transportation hub, which is vital to communities and especially important to Portland. What we have seen over time is the economic development that occurs around these hubs as commuters come into town or people learn about our city and start to see how unique it is,” said Strimling, who governs a city of more than 66,000.
Students at the Durham campus of the University of New Hampshire (UNH), which houses more than 50 percent of its 15,000 students, also rely on the Downeaster and having the station on campus is ideal. The historic depot is a campus landmark housing a waiting room and the UNH Dairy Bar, a café whose menu features locally grown, sustainable ingredients.
In addition, sports fans who live outside of Boston who want to take in a game at TD Garden, where the Celtics and Bruins play, are able to catch the train back home after watching a game. The arena sits directly above Boston North Station.
“Having the Amtrak station here in our region is a great way for our residents to commute to Portland and Boston for work. You are finding more and more that people have less of a desire to drive to work or to events,” added Sutherland.
This article was adapted from a piece in the February 2017 edition of Ink, Amtrak’s employee magazine.