Business leaders: Downtown image hurt by violence, reporting

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LEWISTON — When local business owners sat down to form the Downtown Lewiston Association six months ago, they hoped to change some people’s negative impressions of the downtown.

Crime wasn’t on their minds.

But after two homicides occurred near Kennedy Park and nearby Sabattus Street — both inside a month of each other — and after what some business owners say has been excessive attention on the killings, it’s on their minds now.

Association Chairman Michael Dostie believes the majority of tension in the city this summer has been created by media coverage of the crimes, and says that’s prompting his customers at J. Dostie Jewelers on Lisbon Street to ask questions about safety.

He takes issue with the volume of stories being written and reported about the violence.

“These incidents are being reported on over and over and over, and in many different ways,” Dostie said. “Each one is reminding everyone that there was a violent crime.”

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He said what he sees as a focus on violence in Lewiston has implications for the neighboring downtown business community — fewer customers, fewer new businesses wanting to move in, more time spent trying to spread the word that Lewiston isn’t that bad.

While growth in the commercial district has momentum, he said, it’s difficult to pitch Lewiston to new investors who may have negative associations with the downtown.

Dostie would also like the city, from police to city administration, to label different Lewiston neighborhoods when they talk publicly about crime, like Portland has the “Old Port” and “Bayside,” so that media reports of crime “downtown” don’t make people think of Lewiston’s shopping and dining district.

“I don’t want to pretend that all the issues are in the downtown residential neighborhoods, but if you just lump everything into ‘downtown,’ then that’s something that makes attracting investors to a downtown commercial area a very difficult sell,” he said.

He and members of the new association are optimistic, based on the amount of reinvestment and rehab they are seeing in downtown buildings — more than $100 million in the past 10 years. He remembers when there were more boards on windows than there were stores open.

Just the same, this summer has them nervous.

“I think there are a number of people who genuinely believe that coming downtown is dangerous,” said Keith Tannenbaum, the group’s vice chairman and owner of The Vault wine and beer shop on Lisbon Street. “My experience would overwhelmingly lead me to believe that that’s just not true.”

Shortly after buying his business two years ago, one of The Vault’s clerks was badly beaten by a robber using broken wine bottles. The man told police he had a drug debt to pay.

“Inevitably, bad stuff is going to happen sometimes” in big cities, Tannenbaum said. Yet instead of turning him off — “There were certainly people who would have said, ‘Forget it, I’m giving up and moving away or selling'” — the aftermath of the attack had the opposite effect.

“The way the community reacted, the way the police reacted, so many friends and family reacted, led me to believe that the community is just that much stronger,” he said. “I’ve been in this community now for 21 years. The changes since then are dramatic downtown. It just, to me, feels like it’s just getting better. The new places that keep opening are great, with the new apartment building going in down across from Forage (on Lisbon Street). It just feels like things are continually going in the right direction, and that’s awesome.”

Other forming members of the downtown association include Tom Platz and Gabrielle Russell of Platz Associates, John Grenier of Rainbow Bicycle, and Jules Patry of DaVinci’s Eatery.

Michael Dostie introduces the Downtown Lewiston Association at a meet and greet at DaVinci’s Eatery in Lewiston in July. The new nonprofit is dedicated to advocating for the downtown commercial district. (Sun Journal file photo)

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