AUBURN — It’s hard to miss the Androscoggin River crashing between downtown Lewiston and Auburn this time of year, when the falls are at full flow.
On Thursday, a number of people made the trek up the Auburn Riverwalk to take a closer look, including officials from both sides of the river who are working on projects that could boost attention to the river year round.
A number of local organizations, led by Grow L+A and the Androscoggin Land Trust, are working together to create a “first-class” walking history trail that would span both sides of the river.
For everyone involved, the idea behind it is simple: get more people on the river by pitching the Androscoggin as a destination. At the same time, they’re hoping to promote fishing derbies and more paddling and other events.
“It could be a destination for not only locals, but for people from out of state,” said Peter Rubins, a member of Grow L+A’s river working group.
He said there’s no reason tourists traveling to the Kingfield or Belgrade areas shouldn’t be stopping in Lewiston-Auburn. The river working group’s main goals are to publicize the falls, formalize the history trail and promote more river events.
Currently, the most tangible project is the history trail. Despite no official funding source yet, Androscoggin Land Trust leaders Shelley Kruszewski and Auburn City Councilor Jim Pross are confident the project will come to fruition.
The blueprint for the walking history trail has already been created, both locally and elsewhere in New England.
Members of the organizations have received cost estimates for the markers, which likely will come from The Museum in the Streets, a Maine-based company that has designed similar history trails in the U.S. and abroad. Ten other Maine cities have markers installed in downtown areas.
Locally, the Androscoggin Land Trust recently rolled out a global-positioning-system smartphone application called TravelStorys, which uses GPS technology to trigger audio stories when the device encounters one of the tour’s 12 featured landmarks.
Pross recorded the voice-overs for the stories, which he said went through several rewrites for what would finally appear on the app. Kruszewski said once the physical history trail markers are installed, the app will be edited to match the layout of the walking tour.
“It serves as a really good foundation,” Pross said, referring to the larger project.
The smartphone app trail follows the Auburn Riverwalk across the bridge to Lewiston and into Simard-Payne Memorial Park, doubling back over the pedestrian bridge. Pross said the walking history trail may expand that area to include points on Lisbon Street.
He said the group has already met with planning officials in both cities, who are supportive of the project. Rubins said he’s optimistic that since both cities are working together, they may be willing to set aside some funding for it.
“They really saw that the groundwork has been done, and that we could really enhance all the money that the cities have spent on infrastructure,” Pross said of the planning departments.
Kruszewski said the group is readying a detailed budget to present to both cities, and may also pursue business sponsors.
Other partners for the project are Bates College, Museum L-A, Healthy Androscoggin and the Androscoggin Historical Society.
Part of the mission of the land trust, Pross said, is to connect people to the river.
“If you can appreciate the river, you can appreciate the lands around the river, and we think there are a lot of special places,” he said.
The first step will occur June 1, when way-finding kiosks are installed in both cities, in time for the Build Maine event on June 8-9. Pross said they’re coming from a 2012 grant the land trust received, which will help direct people to the city’s trail system and other points of interest.
Rubins, Pross and Kruszewski took part in a discussion on the future of the river, hosted by the L-A Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce in March. The consensus among city officials was that more needs to be done to restore the riverfronts in both cities.
“We need to attract people, and the way you do that is by creating amenities,” said Lewiston City Administrator Ed Barrett during the chamber event. “You start by doing things that people in the community really want.”
At one time, the Androscoggin was listed among the top 10 most polluted rivers in the country, because of years of industrial damage caused by surrounding mills.
As the group was on the path Thursday heading toward West Pitch Park, clusters of people trudged by every few minutes, stopping to watch the water rushing past the overlook.
Rubins said the river working group has been in discussions with Brookfield, the operators of the dam, about their project ideas. It includes talks on possible timed releases of the falls for special occasions during the year when the falls are usually dry. The falls are only active six to eight weeks in the spring, he said.
For paddling enthusiasts, Kruszewski said there’s also a version of the TravelStorys app for kayaking on the river, with similar narrated stories. She flashed her iPhone, complete with a waterproof case that has already been tested.
“They really do work,” she said.
Shelley Kruszewski of the Androscoggin Land Trust, Peter Rubins of Grow L+A and Auburn City Councilor Jim Pross walk along the Auburn Riverwalk at West Pitch Park on Thursday.
An installation in Hallowell begins with a larger introductory panel, showing the locations of the history trail.
One of a few dozen “Museum in the Streets” markers in Augusta describes the city’s industrial history. A similar project is being eyed for Lewiston-Auburn, which would feature several markers spanning both sides of the Androscoggin River.