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LaBonte: Investors must get a seat at the planning table

By Jonathan P. LaBonte

TCT Columnist

There are two ways to see a vibrant Downtown Lewiston-Auburn that features shops, jobs, attractive residential areas, landscaped streets and paths, public parks and cultural amenities. The first would be to go back about 120 years.

The second would be to learn from the mechanics of building the cities in that era and see if any of those lessons apply today.

While there may be a land-use planning dissertation buried somewhere in that opening salvo, there are a couple of broad brush strokes that might be painted to illustrate these points without putting the readers to sleep over 20,000 words.

The initial and most important lesson is to take the long view. When the early investors came to Lewiston-Auburn, they clearly recognized the potential to build some mills because of the existence of Lewiston Falls. But we weren’t the only place with a set of falls: Lisbon, Livermore, Rumford and Brunswick all had a set of falls as well.

What would come to separate Lewiston and position it to become a dominant economic force for such a long period? Those early planners, who worked for the companies and not the cities, recognized that there was more than just the falls here.

The topography of Downtown Lewiston would allow them to use the drop of water at the falls over a much longer stretch by building a canal. Given the topography, that drop in water could be used multiple times as water flowed through mills on the upper canal (Canal Street) down to the lower canal (Oxford Street).

Even before the first shovel hit the ground, the entire canal network had been laid out on a map with designated areas for mills to be constructed; other areas were planned for commercial activity and worker housing. Lewiston was fairly remote at that time, so building a city that could serve all the needs of residents was critically important to economic success.

The Franklin Company, the designers of the downtown under the leadership of agent Albert Kelsey (likely my favorite personality from L-A’s past), controlled most of the real estate and even planned traditional residential neighborhoods for single-family homes that would take advantage of the landscape and views back into the city.

If the Franklin Company and its partners were to invest in building canals and dams and streets, how much of that investment would they lose if they opted to just put houses, for example, where Bates Mill No. 5 was ultimately built? While Mill No. 5 wasn’t built until 1913, the land from the original layout was still available when its time came.

Of course, it wasn’t all perfect. A number of things occurred during the building of Lewiston-Auburn that led to a change of course. The canals were constructed for mechanical power, since electrical transmission didn’t exist. By the time such transmission was an option, there was no need to place mills along canals, as long as they were close to a source of electricity.

If you need proof that the complete vision of using the canals for mechanical power wasn’t realized, take a look at the abrupt end of the canal on Oxford Street. The original plans would have extended that canal across Cedar Street to support another mill in what is now known as Little Canada.

By the time that emerged in the early 1900s, the mills still controlled much of the politics of the cities. But they were less interested in the planning aspect or the long-term view. Pollution, substandard housing, poor working conditions and a long list of others demonstrate that things certainly weren’t perfect. But for that era, the economic model of taking the long view (25 to 50 years) worked just fine.

How do we fair in that arena now?

Most cities and towns in Maine—and Lewiston-Auburn is no exception—only plan when there is a mandate to walk through a prescribed process. There are boxes to be checked off, a committee to be formed, a certain number of meetings to be held, a few public hearings and that’s it. Voila! The plan goes before a City Council and is adopted.

In many cases, those plans, which were created over many years and dozens of meetings, simply sit on a shelf. They often include a wish list for what people want in their community; this list is usually separated from the financial realities facing the city and the financial burdens on business investors who would provide goods or services. Rarely do the plans look at a longer period than 10 to 15 years.

This leaves us planning for a city on the hopes and dreams of those citizens that show up to meetings; these hopes and dreams are almost always separated from the economic climate that property and business owners here face and what they need for growth.

Public involvement is great, and political will is a critical component to nearly all economic development projects because most—love it or hate it—require some level of public support through infrastructure or tax incentives.

But if the investors that could profit from implementing the plan are not at the table or engaged fully in the process, then where does that leave us?

A recent example is the Gas Works Redevelopment Plan, which can still be found tucked away on the City of Lewiston’s website. Less than 10 years ago, an initial plan was developed (with public input) to revitalize a 27-acre area that included the Avon Mill, Androscoggin Mill No. 2, the Cumberland Mill and a few other buildings clustered along the Androscoggin River and the end of the canal network.

This area was seen as a critical southern gateway into Downtown Lewiston along Lincoln Street and near Locust Street. The hope was that investment here could spin off significant investment in surrounding properties.

The plan envisioned green space along the river (now Gas Light Park); artist living/working space in the Avon Mill (now torn down); conversion of the old rail line into a bike/pedestrian trail (now being held for suggested freight use); and possible use of the old Meter House by an outfitter suiting people up for recreation on and along the river.

In fact, every building but the Cumberland Mill and the larger Androscoggin Mill No. 1 have been torn down. The only part of the “plan” implemented is a park that was technically provided as environmental mitigation for the coal tar that once freely seeped into the Androscoggin River from the old Gas Works.

Why did this plan fail? Was it proposed as an idea with the hopes that someone would run with it? Were any firms that develop working/living spaces approached?

If so, why was investing in Lewiston not viable? Were any discussions held with outfitters about a possible downtown riverfront location?

The plan is less than 10-years-old, but its potential appears to have been abandoned without public discussion, without a firm understanding of the economics of why it failed or why it was never given a chance. A formal decision to abandon it would be warranted. But none of that happened.

There is enough of rhetoric from people who say you can’t save old buildings, or downtown will never come back, or the arts can’t create economic development.

The City of Lewiston’s planning for the Gas Works area and subsequent support for abandoning it is circumstantial evidence that those naysayers were right.  Unfortunately, it was most likely the lack of commitment, the lack of follow-through and communication with investors in the process and after it, as well as the failure to take the long view, that led to this situation.

As Lewiston prepares to embark on its Riverfront Island Study and Auburn concludes its Comprehensive Plan process, elected and appointed officials should be pushing to engage property owners and business owners. We should heed the lessons of both our past and our recent history: without private investment, we will continue watching our vision get torn down.

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