Lewiston officials tour Bates Mill No. 5, see little future for it

LEWISTON — If Bates Mill No. 5 were capable of having an existential crisis, it would be nicely summed up by an oft-quoted line Shakespeare wrote long ago: “To be or not to be.”

Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

David Gudas, a resident of Lewiston and a city employee, takes photos inside Bates Mill No. 5 on Saturday as he and several dozen others toured the Lewiston landmark. For a video of the tour, visit sunjournal.com/mill5tour010712.

Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Lewiston photographer Daniel Marquis takes photos on the top floor of Bates Mill No. 5 during Saturday's tour. For a video of the tour, visit sunjournal.com/mill5tour010712.

Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Lewiston photographer Daniel Marquis takes photos of an old fringe machine during Saturday's tour of Bates Mill No. 5. For a video of the tour, visit sunjournal.com/mill5tour010712.

The consensus among city officials and many Lewiston residents is that the time has come to decide what to do with the building once and for all.

With that in mind, city councilors, administrators, Planning Board members and representatives of the the Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce toured the former mill Saturday morning, trying to see past the slowly crumbling skeleton and into its future.

It's a question the city has struggled with since the early 1990s, when it took over the mill property. The building has a complex grasp on Lewiston. It is at once a highly recognizable landmark and a link to the area's manufacturing glory days, a holding bank for memories of the mothers, fathers and grandparents who came to Lewiston to make shoes, bedsheets and better lives. It was designed 100 years ago by Albert Kahn, the foremost industrial architect in America at the time. His steel and concrete buildings defined the assembly-line era that pushed American manufacturing to powerhouse levels.

“It was an incredible place,” said Kurk Lalemand, standing on the open mezzanine level that was once a buzzing production floor. Lalemand worked there in his youth and is now the board chairman of the Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce.

But Planning Board Co-chairman Bruce Damon has called it a “butt-ugly” eyesore. It's also been a money pit, absorbing municipal dollars without attracting viable investors.

Other buildings from the Bates Mill complex have been successfully renovated, turned into thriving breweries, restaurants and other businesses, but No. 5 has sat vacant and slowly decaying for decades. In 2009, the City Council voted to have it demolished. A bureaucratic glitch about historic preservation guidelines saved it.

“We've tried for more than a decade to redevelop the building,” said Lincoln Jeffers, assistant to the city administrator, as he led the tour, flashlight in hand, “and it's costing us money.”

As the group explored and listened to Jeffers, Deputy City Administrator Phil Nadeau and Museum L-A Executive Director Rachel Desgrosseilliers talk about the building's past and its current condition, there was no lack of awe and respect for history.

“It's a neat building,” Jeffers said, "but it's got challenges."

He brought the group of about two dozen city thinkers and decision-makers through the relatively well-preserved mezzanine, a cavernous room steadily punctuated by support pillars, past the dormant hydropower machinery and up the stairs to the second floor. Jeffers warned the group to watch their step where sections of the floor had been torn up unevenly.

There, under the angled arches of the distinctive saw-toothed roof, the dilapidation was more obvious. The concrete pillars and beams supporting the roof looked as though they had been chewed upon. There is no heat or humidity control in the building, and the old construction techniques left the steel rebar that fortifies the cement walls and pillars vulnerable to oxidation. As the steel rusts, it expands, pushing against the cement until it cracks, Jeffers said. Corrugated metal sheeting had been rigged up along the length of one wall to reinforce the roof above.

Nadeau discussed the logistic and financial realities of renovating the building for any kind of use: a minimum investment of $20 million, more like $60 million to create a respectable convention center. In cities like Boston, where renovated industrial spaces have found life anew as commercial centers, rents can run over $100 per square foot a month, Nadeau said. For the best office space in Lewiston, rents don't go above $17 a square foot.

The space is seemingly too big for housing, too inaccessible for new manufacturing, and too costly to renovate for noncommercial purposes. The structure itself is limiting: “There's no removing — you've got to work around what's in the way,” said Damon, who had suggested the tour because some Planning Board members had never been inside No. 5.

"I think it's important we all have the information," Damon said.

By the end of the tour, there had been no serious discussion of a future for the building as it now stands.

“Nobody has been able to come up with a use, besides convention center and casino,” Jeffers said.

“The inside is in far worse shape than I pictured,” said recently sworn-in Ward 3 Councilor Nate Libby. After 10 years, the chances of redeveloping the building — but not necessarily for the land beneath it — are slim, he said.

“My feeling is it needs to be torn down," said Harry Milliken, a past Planning Board chairman. An empty lot could be less expensive for investors to develop, he said.

Or, it could be used for communal green space, parks and other recreational purposes that tie into the canals and enliven the downtown, Lalemand said.

“But it all has to fall into place with what happens with the riverfront property,” Milliken said.

Lewiston's Riverfront Island District, stretching from Main Street to Cedar Street between the river and the canals, appears to be the focus of the city's dreams of regrowth. Already, a series of public workshops has been scheduled to promote discussion of its future. The first took place in November. During the next meeting, at the Bates Mill Atrium on Chestnut Street on Jan. 18, Boston planning firm Goody Clancy will present three possible plans for the area, only one of which will keep No. 5 intact.

For most of the city planners touring the mill, the fate of Lewiston's former manufacturing behemoth is tightly linked to the development of the rest of the riverfront.

“We need to make a decision so that plan can come together without this missing piece,” said Ward 5 Councilor Craig Saddlemire.


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Tearing it down

No one mentioned the cost to tear it down and who would pay for that. I seem to recall it was a staggering amount. I would hate to spend all that money tearing it down only to end up with a patch of grass. If it is torn down it should be in conjunction with a real plan as to what will happen next.

Randall Pond's picture

Bates Mill No. 5

It's A Sin that Lewiston as let this place and so many other like it, get so bad!

It's time to say good-bye to this and remove to better revitalize Lewiston, Maine.

FRANK EARLEY's picture

I like the building, but!!

Back in the eighties and early ninties,I used to pull alot of loads out of that building.
Alot of times if I arrived at like one or two in the morning. I had to go searching for a fork lift driver to load my truck. It was a scary place at night, especially the upper floors. I don't know if there still there but the forklifts had to drive on steel plating,used to reenforce the floors. I was afraid to step off that plating. If the forktruck was on the floor above you, you could follow its movements from the floor creeking.
Unfourtunatly I don't think the old place has the access it used to have. I really can't see any real use for it now. Accept maybe a Haunted House on steroids at halloween time. I think the land can be better used for new project designed for the land around it now, it has changed alot.


Thank you Mike for the

Thank you Mike for the compliment on the video. I remember touring the mill when I was still a child and in awe of the vast building. The sounds, smells and sheer magnitude of what went on inside awed me. The historical significance was lost on me at that time, but am glad I was privy to it now. As a fledgling photojournalist some 30 years ago, I documented the waning years of production and later the selling off the vast majority of machinery. (I wish we still had those negatives).
I have lived here all my life and am sad when we tear historic buildings down...like that little church next to CMMC where the parking lot is. However, in this case, I don't see any alternative to tearing down Bates Mill #5.
Kudos for Tom Platz for stepping in and investing millions into the redevelopment of some of the other old mills, although I am not sure about the section 8 housing in the other part of Bates Mill, but that is another story for another time.
Those who think that if somebody sinks millions of dollars into #5 will be able to make a go of it, you only have to listen to the facts quoted by Mr. Nadeau saying that the best spaces locally fetch about $17 per square foot where they are getting over $100 in the big cities who have sunk money into redeveloping their old mills. You can do the math and figure out it won't work for us.
With much reluctance, I say "tear it down." However, I would love to see a plan, like the one that was in place until an eleventh hour reversal a few years back, for saving a small section that houses the power generator and some floor space to house some of the machinery and artifacts that are part of our heritage. Not to power it back up again for production, but preserve it as an attraction and a showpiece for our community to show off. Years from now it could be part of a historic walk that people from all over will come to visit Museum LA along the river and walk along the riverfront and follow the canals to this wonderful piece of our history.
God bless Rachel and all the other community members who champion the cause to preserve our heritage.

 's picture

Very well timed video

It was well past time for the citizens that have been dreaming about a marketplace or casino see the actual conditions inside Mill No. 5. The Sun-Journal provided a solid service to the community by presenting this video. It is, and always has been, the "Weave Shed" and it has outlived its economic life.

Bruce Damon's personal comments are right on the money, in my opinion.

Mike Lachance's picture


Awesome video segment. My hats off to all the SJ staff involved in this piece. Great stuff!


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