A busy 2016 for Lewiston-Auburn area business

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It’s been a year of big moves, big hopes and doughnuts of the Local and Coming Soon varieties.

My candidates for the top 10 business stories of the year in and around greater Lewiston-Auburn are in no particular order. They’re stories that intrigued, celebrated the area or simply made big, newsy headlines. 

Red, white and Lew

Workers at Rancourt & Co. hand-sewed 1,100 red, white and blue leather boat shoes worn by Olympians and Paralympians at opening and closing ceremonies in Rio this summer. The shoes were made by Rancourt for Ralph Lauren, which outfitted Team USA, and highlighted the Lewiston company in a video on its website.

President Michael Rancourt hosted a local viewing party for the Olympic opening ceremony with 50 family and friends at Sidecar on Lisbon Street.

“My dad, who is still alive, he started this whole thing (the shoe company) back in 1967; it was crazy to have him be part of what we were celebrating,” Rancourt said.

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As soon as the celebrating subsided, an unexpected request: Weeks before the opening ceremonies for the Paralympics in September, Ralph Lauren asked whether Rancourt & Co. could quickly sew an additional eight pairs of shoes, this time in boys’ sizes 1, 2, 3 and 4, for Paralympic athletes.

It was a challenge of time and materials.

“We really didn’t have any components that could fit the small sizes that they were requesting. We had to get very creative,” Rancourt said. “These (were for) paraplegic people in wheelchairs — the Olympic Committee wanted them to come in with the Olympic boat shoes on their feet (too).”

Like the end of any good sports story when your team is up against the clock, Rancourt & Co. pulled it off.

Bring on the doughnuts

Last year, Frosty’s Donuts opened in Lisbon and Krispy Kreme announced it was coming to Auburn, making it  what was expected to be the first shop in the state for that popular franchise.

Shelby Omdal and her husband, Nels, opened Frosty’s in Lisbon’s former Something’s Fishy on Lisbon Street in May, their fifth location. 

“We really, in opening it, kind of saw it as kind of a pass-through town,” said Shelby Omdal. They figured Lisbon would be a great spot to coffee- and doughnut-up commuters. “We have learned it’s really a tight-knit community of folks who come together and do things together, and we’ve been involved in a lot of the community events. It was not exactly what we thought, but in a good way.”

Krispy Kreme, meanwhile, is still under construction on Center Street. Developer Cort Mendez is shooting for a late May opening after “a number of delays with construction.”

“My hope was to be very close to opening by this point,” Mendez said. “Saco is also in design and now looks like it will be ready just prior to Auburn.”

So it appears the Twin Cities won’t get bragging rights for landing the first Krispy Kreme in the state.

If it’s any consolation, Mendez did offer this: “As an update on Krispy Kreme, they have improved their coffee offering with a different coffee bean and process that is sure to make an impact. Additionally, the company is launching Nutella and Reese’s flavored doughnuts.”

Nutella, hmm. You’ll have to taste and decide if it was worth the wait.

I’ll trade you an Applebee’s for …

In August, developer George Schott sold three plazas near the Auburn Mall for $16.4 million and the Center Street Applebee’s.

Craig Young, a broker and partner at CBRE/The Boulos Co. who worked with Schott on the deal, said buyers Thomas Auger Jr. and Nancy Auger Hunt have plans to build out the plazas (Hobby Lobby Plaza, Nobility Plaza beside the Auburn Mall and Mount Auburn Plaza).

In September, developer Dave Gendron’s MRE LLC bought the Promenade Mall in Lewiston for $4 million. A broker involved in that sale teased a “turnaround plan” for that plaza.

There’s no word for either on what might come and when. Applebee’s, meanwhile, is going Riblets strong.

‘Dear Eric … ‘

When Eric Agren announced plans last summer to let go of his French restaurant Fuel in an essay contest, even actor Patrick Dempsey joked that he was excited to enter.

The contest could have had an interesting impact: Would the winner be local or from away? Could they keep up Fuel’s reputation? Did they even know how to cook? But four months later, in November, Agren canceled the contest because he didn’t get the 8,000 entries he’d set his sights on.

Agren said last month that he was perfectly OK with the turn of events. He’ll keep running Fuel on Lisbon Street in Lewiston until the right situation comes along.

L-A on display

During the month of July, the Maine College of Art’s June Fitzpatrick Gallery in Portland hosted “Made in LA,” an exhibit highlighting 12 Lewiston-Auburn companies, celebrating their work and photographs of their employees at work, as art.

Beckie Conrad, MECA’s vice president of institutional advancement, said 1,000 people turned out on opening night and more than 5,000 came through during the monthlong run.

“The comments we received during the show were completely in line with what we hoped would happen,” Conrad said. “They understood the notion of us as an art college celebrating the makers of Lewiston-Auburn. We heard comments about people being so surprised to know that some of those industries were (there) and said, ‘Oh, we’ve got to get up there and see that community.'”

Welcome to Lisbon Street

It’s been a busy year for a busy few blocks of Lisbon Street in downtown Lewiston with the addition of Don’t Panic Consulting, Anchour, Munka, Maine Made Infused Products, Rinck advertising, Downtown Handmade & Vintage, Quiet City, Ben’s Burritos and others.

“People are really ready for that small-community, tight-knit thing going on, and it’s such a good way to meet people, to make connections and to see what our neighbors are up to,” said Courtney Schlachter, who opened Quiet City with books and gifts in April.

She’s moving to larger quarters in early 2017, also on Lisbon Street, this time downstairs from Rainbow Bicycle.

“I’ll be able to have a lot more books and a lot more local artists and artisans and I can also have an event space, like for book signings,” Schlachter said. “If any book clubs want to meet there, I’ll actually have space for them. (Above Paul’s Clothing) was a good place to start. I have had enough success where I’m ready to expand my space and get a little more serious.”

Proposed Chinese medical tourism project shows signs of life

That $40 million project to turn the Auburn factory formerly known as The Barn into a high-end destination for Chinese medical tourists?

Despite a year of seemingly little public progress, project representatives assured Sun Journal readers in July that it’s still on and that work was going on behind the scenes.

As recently as November, Tony Yick said he didn’t see President-elect Donald Trump’s tough talk against China during the campaign scuttling the project.

Chamber president abruptly leaves

Matt Leonard, hired only a year ago as the new president of the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, which he had a hand in renaming, abruptly turned in his resignation in November a day after the chamber announced a semi-automatic rifle raffle.

He called the timing of the raffle announcement on Election Day “a colossal error in judgment” and canceled the contest. The board accepted his resignation a week later.

Leonard said earlier this month he plans to stay in his Auburn home, at least for now, though his commute might get a bit longer. He’s looking to try something new in the new year.

“The big thing that’s come of this, I see myself not necessarily doing one thing but doing several things all at once without being limited,” he said. “Politics is something I’m definitely interested in. We have a big election coming up soon (in two years) — we’re going to have a Senate race, we’re going to have an open gubernatorial race and that’s going to have a huge impact on the future of Maine. I think there’s probably opportunity there to play. I think there are a lot of challenges that Maine has that we need some innovative solutions to address.”

Grand entrance

San Francisco-based Grand Rounds announced plans in August to establish its East Coast presence in Lewiston, bringing 200 jobs to the Bates Mill complex over the next five years.

The company specializes in helping match a business’s employees with doctors, typically working with employers of 1,000 workers or more.

Danielle Snow, vice president of Care Operations, said its new home in Bates Mill No. 6 is still being built out, but so far more than 30 employees have been hired to work in its temporary space. The company hopes to move into the new space in the first half of 2017. Plans are still on to grow to 200 people “based on the demand for our services by employers across the country.”

“Grand Rounds is excited to be part of the Lewiston community,” she said, adding that it’s been a warm welcome.

Let it snow! (In higher elevations, at least …)

Even if the snow’s just started, business behind the slopes was busy in 2016.

A real estate investment trust sold Sunday River and Sugarloaf to a hedge fund, keeping the same day-to-day management in place; organizers launched an effort to buy and bring back Saddleback Mountain outside Rangeley; and Lost Valley in Auburn worked to reinvent itself under new owners. 

Winter’s just starting. Now to see what action awaits.

kskelton@sunjournal.com 

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