The future of Lewiston’s ‘Ellis Island’ may be decided Wednesday after 30 years of vacancy

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LEWISTON — A museum. A costume shop. A department of motor vehicles office. Maybe a townhouse.

Proposals for reusing the little brick Grand Trunk Depot on Lincoln Street have come and gone over decades, the former rail station all the while sitting vacant, a reminder of heritage that’s getting harder to remember.

That could change Wednesday.

Lewiston and Auburn Railroad Co. directors are poised to vote on whether to accept money offered by the city and ink a deal with a mystery woman who wants to invest nearly a quarter-million dollars to open a rail-themed restaurant.

“We’ve been talking to her a year, a year and a half. She’s been knocking at this door a long time,” said Lincoln Jeffers, assistant to the city administrator and a rail director.

The 111-year-old building would get a facelift before a restaurant and the personal investment that would require goes in. Over the winter, LARC won a $200,000 Rural Business Enterprise Grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The railroad company is also spending $55,000 of its own funds — the group earns money leasing track, Jeffers said. And last month the City Council approved $115,700 toward rehab with one caveat: It gets a say on who goes in.

Depot, looking back

Bates College professor emeritus and author Douglas Hodgkin devoted a chapter to the Depot in his new book, “The Lewiston and Auburn Railroad Company, 1872-2009,” and detailed the cycle of proposals. Just a few: In 1971, a Franco-American museum. In 1977, headquarters for the Unite Franco-Americaine, space for the Chamber of Commerce and concerts. In 1984, another museum pitch.

In 1987, when LARC was looking to sell the Depot, it took bids from Venise Berube, the former Drapeau’s costume shop owner, who would have relocated down there, according to Hodgkin, as well as from John Schott, interested in a rail-themed pub, office space or townhouses, and from Robert Gladu, interested in office space.

Schott, with the lowest offer of those three, won. That, Hodgkin wrote, made some waves.

According to the Lewiston Assessor’s Office, Schott paid LARC $10,000 for the Depot in 1987. He made improvements but the property stayed empty.

In 2003, ready to redevelop it themselves, the railroad company bought it back from Schott for nearly 30 times the original purchase price: $299,925. (Records indicate that included the Depot and a neighboring lot at 38 Oxford St.)

That purchase was the result of $2 million in bond money from the state to LARC to buy property and help preserve a stretch of rail. It also triggered Depot improvements in 2004. All $2 million has since been spent.

“Still,” Hodgkin wrote, “the Depot continues to sit empty 54 years after the last passenger service and 30 years after the last occupant moved out.”

‘A historic gem’

Jeffers said LARC trimmed a recent architect’s proposal to bring the building up to date, from a cost of $300,000 to $200,000. Winning the recent USDA funds, though, triggered a federal historic review — the Depot’s been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1979. Word came back that changes couldn’t have an “adverse impact” on its historic nature, Jeffers said.

“It got us back to $300,000-plus,” he said.

That’s when the railroad company approached the city for help rehabbing the 2,100-square-foot station. Lewiston has programs for spending Community Development Block Grant funds on commercial ventures, Jeffers said, such as low-interest loans and facade improvement grants. Law office Hardy, Wolf & Downing and Fuel restaurant owner Eric Agren have each received $75,000 for the latter, he said.

Money to the Depot didn’t fit neatly into an existing program, according to Jeffers (facade grants are targeted to Lisbon Street), but fit the broader mission of getting involved in low- to moderate-income areas.

Earle Shuttleworth of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission has called the Depot “Lewiston’s Ellis Island” for all the thousands of people who once passed through, Jeffers said. “It’s recognized as a historic gem.”

Deputy City Administrator Phil Nadeau, leading an effort to revitalize the riverfront neighborhood, said the Depot has been a “source of great disappointment.” When he’s down in Railroad Park for the Great Falls Balloon Festival or the Dempsey Challenge, “all you’re doing is looking around at the ‘what-ifs.’”

Waiting for a name

The same night last month that the City Council voted unanimously to approve the $115,700 to help rehab the building, Lucien Gosselin, head of the Lewiston-Auburn Economic Growth Council, said a woman whom he declined to name planned to invest $230,000 to turn the space into an eatery.

That money will not come in a loan from the city, Jeffers said.

Ken St. Amand, an LAEGC staffer who works with the railroad board, said the board wouldn’t have any comment on that deal until it had been formally accepted, or not, on Wednesday.

Jeffers said a restaurant fits the city’s criteria for the sort of future use it would like to see for the Depot. It would create jobs. He couldn’t predict how many, and a minimum requirement isn’t linked to Lewiston’s funds.

“The building at this point is a blight. We wish the restaurant well and hope she’s there for a very, very long time,” he said.

If it doesn’t last, the upgrades will have made it ready for the next idea.

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