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.”
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.