Fort Andross: The revitalization
The Brunswick Downtown Association hosted breakfast at Fort Andross’ Coleman P. Burke Gallery on Tuesday as part of their latest Speaker Series presentation: “Fort Andross: 30 Years of Revitalization,” featuring developer Coleman Burke, founder of Waterfront Maine.
Burke purchased Fort Andross in 1986 and revived the old mill into the thriving business complex that it is today.
Burke spoke to a crowd of nearly 150 about the history of the mill, focusing on business decisions that helped and hindered him along the way. His successor, Anthony “Tony” Gatti spoke as well, calling the tenants of Fort Andross “the foundation of our mission.” Both men were introduced by BDA board member Claudia Knox.
“Thanks to the stewardship of of Coley Burke, Fort Andross hosts offices, warehouses, restaurants, art studios, retail, broadcasting, the Winter Farmers Market,” said Knox. “We experience Fort Andross as not just the defining bookend where Maine Street meets the Androscoggin River, but as the proud and busy and serviceable working space it was built to be.”
Burke, who owns property in five states and set his sights on Portland in the mid-1980s, learned that a large mill building was for sale in Brunswick through his son, Eric, worked there. He became friends with then-owner George Lewis, and was able to hash out a deal for the 300,000-square-foot property in 1986.
“I have a theory,” said Burke. “If it’s 100 years old, it’s an antique. If it’s 200 years old, it’s a double antique. If it’s 300 years old, it’s one of a kind. This fort, in its foundations, is 328 years old.”
Burke immediately began remodeling large swaths of the fort after purchase, but said that certain parts of its structure were deemed untouchable.
“The wood inside was worth more than I probably paid for the mill,” said Burke. “The wood and brick resonated with me. It will last for 1,000 years if some idiot doesn’t tear it down.”
Burke and his team installed air conditioners, a new boiler and new stairs, but he said that his vision was “a rocky road at the start,” with the “worst flood of the Androscoggin River ever” inundating the foundation in 1987.
But things smoothed out, tenants began to rent, and in 1993 Burke brought on Gatti as his right-hand man and successor-in-training of Waterfront Maine. Burke described Gatti as a “lean, mean running machine, and a gent.”
“He was having trouble talking to the tenants,” said Burke of Gatti’s early days on the job. “I told him to ‘tell everyone you’re the owner.’”
“Some of the roofs leaked when I started, and most of the windows had broken glass and were boarded up,” said Gatti. “Before building the great team we have today, I got called in many nights to reset the boiler, came in early to plow after snowstorms. I had a tenant move out in the middle of the night and leave me with 20,000 square feet of trash. I learned a lot of hard lessons.
“Today, the mill is bustling. We have approximately 145 tenants and approximately 350 people who call the mill their workplace.”
Gatti pointed out that they’ve recently introduced a solar energy system to the building, and plan to be up on all of the latest technological advancements in the coming years.
“The mill will be standing proud for years to come, a successful example of adapted reuse,” said Gatti.
Gatti ended Tuesday’s presentation by thanking Burke for being a “friend and a mentor all these years.”