By Erin Place
OXFORD—Business is good in Oxford, real good.
While surrounding towns in Oxford Hills are still struggling to climb out of the hole left from the Great Recession of 2008, Oxford has seen an uptick in economic development for a few years now.
“When we went into the recession, a lot of towns had to raise mill rates or cut services,” Oxford Town Manager Michael Chammings said. “We pretty much kept our tax rate flat and kept the same services.”
Oxford Hills Chamber of Commerce Executive Director John Williams agreed that the economy for most of Oxford Hills is still struggling, especially with small businesses.
“But it doesn’t mean we’re not forward looking from the perspective that we’re out there actively engaged in talking with potential companies that might have an interest in coming to this area,” he said.
Forward thinking is what landed Oxford its casino in 2012, Chammings said, which for the most part has been the center of economic growth for the town.
“Obviously it helped us economically. I consider it the anchor store in a mall kind of deal,” Chammings said about Oxford Casino. “We knew we were going to have exhilarated growth, we didn’t expect it to be a boom growth, which good because we can handle it.”
He pointed out the casino is in a Tax Increment Finance (TIF) district, which is a tax shelter and the taxes the casino pays out goes to pay for the town’s infrastructure, mainly the sewer and water systems. This includes the $24 million wastewater treatment facility and the expanded sewer lines currently going in on Route 26.
“The sewer and water on [Route] 26 are what’s allowing for these other businesses to come in,” Chammings said, pointing to the Hampton Inn, which is coinciding its opening with the Oxford wastewater treatment facility’s launch, anticipated for next spring. This saves the hotel millions of dollars from having to put it its own treatment facility, he said.
Williams said there’s talk of a Best Western hotel coming into town and believes the casino serves as the catalyst for the area.
“I think there’s no question there’s going to continue to be development up there in and around the casino and certainly Oxford is gong to benefit tremendously from that,” he said.
Chammings and Williams both point to Applebee’s—and now Aroma Joe’s—opening their doors in Oxford as a direct result of the casino. The coffee shop and drive-thru should be open by mid- to late-August, Williams said. And there’s more lining up.
“We’ve got more restaurant activity associated with the casino,” Williams said, declining to name any franchises that may want to come to the area. “There’s another restaurant that’s interested in coming in that will be adjacent to the Hampton Inn hotel at the top of the hill.”
He added there’s also been some discussion of what he calls a convention center being built up in that area, but not necessarily right next to the casino. Williams said this facility could be host to corporate meetings, concerts and a meeting place for large groups of people, which he said is desperately needed in the area.
“Which is great because you’re seeing some of the secondary jobs and businesses come in to be in the service center of Oxford,” Chammings said.
And Williams said the economic boon for Oxford has a positive ripple effect on Oxford Hills.
“When you see these new restaurants coming in and these coffee shops and that type of thing, it enables people to stay,” Williams said, instead of people driving to Lewiston or Auburn for dinner. “It enables people to take advantage of what we have here. And that is a benefit, no question, to the small business environment we have here.”
Chammings cited a couple of other businesses in town that have been successful and didn’t move to Oxford because of the casino.
“Places like MGA [Cast Stone] and Grover Gun Drilling, they could care less about the casino, it’s not relative to their business but we do have a good business environment in Oxford,” he said. “Our mill rate is low and steady, they don’t up and down. They’re lower than average, lower than any town that abuts us in the service centers by far.”
MGA Cast Stone opened its expanded doors in Oxford in 2010, moving 30 miles north of its former location in New Glouster. The family run business specializes in precast architectural elements that decorate a wide variety of buildings, along with full wall panels, sills and lintels in windows and the like.
According to Greg Hamann, who’s the company’s CEO and one of its owners, it made economic sense to move the business to Oxford. Oxford was struggling economically even before the recession hit after Robinson Mill shuttered in 2004 and then in 2008, Burlington Homes closed its door, with roughly 1,000 people losing their jobs, Chammings said.
“We came because it was an area that economically hit hard and it was affordable for us to bring our business here,” Hamann said.
When MGA Cast Stone arrived in Oxford, the company had six employees. Within the first 16 months of operations there, the employees had grown to 26. And now, that number hovers around 50.
“We’ve grown quickly,” Hamann said. “It’s been a good area for us. There’s a good workforce to pull from. It’s been advantageous because it’s also a pine tree [business economic] zone for the state of Maine. It’s allowed us to have some tax benefits of free capital to go back into the business to be able to continue to grow the business.”
He added the town has been excellent to work with and has supported the business along the way.
Hamann said besides from the casino, MGA Cast Stone is one of the fastest growing businesses in the area. And people want to work there. Hamann said his company receives about 10 job applications a day and they pay slightly above the industry average.
“We want to retain good employees,” he said. “But it’s a competitive market place.”
In addition to make architectural elements for buildings like Martin Point Health Care in Portland, MaineGeneral Hospital, MIT and Park Plaza Hotel in Boston, MGA has cast a larger net in other services and products it now offers. These include recycled glass and concrete products.
“As we’ve expanded, we’ve had opportunities to pursue other … channels as part of the growth to diversify ourselves,” Hamann said.
He pointed MGA’s choice to expand their market up and down the Eastern Seaboard and now as far west as Ohio and Michigan. This also helps since these areas and southern states have longer construction seasons than the Northeast.
“It’s how you stay in business,” Hamann said, laughing.
The town manager credits the board of selectmen for being progressive and looking to the future, along with a well organized Planning Board, Code Enforcement Department and Economic Planning Committee in town. Chammings and the selectmen worked a long time into developing the TIF zone and other tax shelters to help encourage people to do business in Oxford.
“We haven’t been designated by the state as business friendly, because we haven’t turned it in, but we were business friendly before they started business friendly,” Chammings said. “It’s now coming to fruit six, seven years later. … That’s why we get a lot of people coming in.”
He pointed to Tractor Supply and Aaron’s setting up shop in town because of this environment.
As he looks to the future, Chammings is confident there will continue to be economic growth in Oxford.
“You’re going to see continued people buying the property on [Route] 26,” he said. “The sewer system it’s hard to explain how important it is to economic development but it’s part of the infrastructure, if you don’t have [it], then quite frankly, a lot of the businesses won’t be there.”