LEWISTON — Black Bear Ladder opened 18 years ago on Pleasant Street, then a father-son operation that has grown to carry hundreds of ladders, seven kinds of caution tape, hard hats in nine colors, scaffolding and a host of safety equipment.
It may be the only place to find a “Danger: Crane working overhead” sign in Lewiston.
But in 2018, it’s moving on.
The company broke ground this year on property in Lisbon, building three times the size on three times the land, made possible with gap funding from a $131,000 town loan.
“Without them, it would not have worked,” said John Cordts, who owns the company today with his wife, Crystal. “Lisbon has been very aggressive. They’re growing their small-business base considerably with this (loan) program.”
How aggressive is the town?
Lisbon, with a population of just under 9,000, has given out nearly $400,000 in economic development loans in the past five years, more than Lewiston and Auburn combined.
The Sun Journal surveyed the 12 largest cities and towns in Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties and found they’ve loaned a collective $1.1 million since 2013.
Funds have gone to restaurants, taverns, a brewery, a florist, a bottling plant, a hair dresser, a doughnut shop, a lumber mill, a software company looking to develop children’s games (think a smart bowling ball with an iPhone tucked inside) and a factory sewing martial arts gear.
Tony Carter, leading a team of 24 investors, got $125,000 in Rumford two years ago to kick-start a Best Western Plus.
It’s nearly ready to break ground.
“The town has supported us 100 percent, and the community, as well,” Carter said, adding that he has heard grumbles about using public funds, even those slated to be paid back. He good-naturedly brushes it off: “If it wasn’t for them, it would not keep us on the straight and narrow.”
With each loan signed, there’s risk. Lewiston’s largest, $100,000 to the New Hampshire developers with the smart ball, didn’t pan out and defaulted after paying only $3,142 in interest charges. The same happened to a tree service in Farmington, and the status of a Rumford restaurant loan isn’t clear — payments have at least temporarily stopped — for a total, regionwide, of three potential defaults among 34 loans.
But with each one made, there’s the lure of reward.
“As far as the investment (attracted by the loans), you’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars, whether it be in job creation, whether it be in the tax base,” said Tracey Steuber, Lisbon’s economic and community development director. “Take for instance (the new Black Bear Ladder), that’s going to be a huge asset to the community. It’s an area that’s been underdeveloped. I’m a firm believer that it just takes one person and once you get that in, others will say, ‘OK.'”
Of the 12 tri-county cities and towns surveyed, seven — Turner, Norway, Bethel, Poland, Paris, Sabattus and Jay — hadn’t given a loan in at least five years. Neither had Maine’s capital city, Augusta.
“We do have an interest-rate reimbursement program that we offer in conjunction with Kennebec Savings Bank, but the city doesn’t issue, guarantee or underwrite the loan in any way,” said Keith Luke, Augusta’s deputy director of development services.
By contrast, Bangor loaned $730,000 to companies including a janitorial service, a dental office and large e-tailer Wayfair, all forgivable in exchange for creating between three and 20 jobs, according to agreements shared by Tanya L. Emery, Bangor’s director of community and economic development. Of its five loans in the past five years, four have been forgiven and one was awaiting discharge as of May.
Portland has loaned $3.04 million since 2013 to 38 projects that included cruise line infrastructure, restaurant start-ups, a new tortilla manufacturer and help buying a day care center, with defaults to date on only two of those, according to information provided by a city spokeswoman.
“First and foremost, the city’s commercial loan program exists to assist Portland businesses that are not yet bankable or that have a financial gap with a bank to support business growth,” said Nelle Hanig, business programs manager within Portland’s economic development department.
Job creation and retention are among the top priorities, and the city tracks results: In fiscal year 2017, it loaned $873,500, which leveraged another $11.4 million in private investment, created 40 jobs and retained 17, according to a report by the Portland Development Corp.
In the past five years, the Twin Cities have loaned a fraction of that: nearly $164,000 in Lewiston and just under $42,000 in Auburn.
Lincoln Jeffers, Lewiston’s economic and community development director, said most of the city’s commercial loans are tied to revitalizing the downtown.
“It’s really investing in real estate as opposed to investing in operations, often related to job creation because those are the federal regulations tied to it,” he said.
The $100,000 loan to Physical Apps in 2014 had looked promising, Jeffers said. The company, which had funding from several sources, planned to create headquarters here and manufacture its foam balls locally. Popular Science rated those balls, named TheO, one of the top 11 most incredible toys to come out of Toy Fair in 2012.
“It was early promise, it was the track record of the players, it was approaching 100 jobs five to six years out,” Jeffers said.
But, once backed, it fizzled.
“Ultimately, they never got the traction they needed to, burned through the money they had received and ultimately folded up the tent,” he said.
The loss didn’t change the basics of the city program; it made six other economic development loans in the past five years and is looking at an application now for developers behind 188 Lincoln St., a project to turn a former fire substation into a restaurant and apartments.
“They are applying for funds to help cover redevelopment costs on a building that literally had a demolition contract awarded on it,” Jeffers said. “They are bringing this building back from the brink.”
Auburn, which has made five economic development loans since 2013, last year gave out its first Storefront Traffic Accelerates Revitalization, or STAR, business loan to Craft Brew Underground at 34 Court St., as part of a new city initiative.
As do Lewiston, Bangor, Biddeford, Portland and Cumberland County, the city gets specific federal funds each year to channel toward business loans, job creation efforts and home renovation projects.
The Auburn City Council’s goal was to encourage investment in downtown storefronts, drive foot traffic “and make the downtown more vibrant,” said Eric Cousens, deputy director of economic and community development. “Sometimes they’re somebody’s first business, sometimes they are too risky for traditional financing, but they have something that we think could be good for the downtown and we take a chance on it.”
He anticipates more STAR applications soon. Those loans go up to $50,000, with some conditions on how that’s spent, and can be forgiven over five years if businesses hit criteria including job creation.
If an entrepenuer’s looking at comparable rents in Lewiston and Auburn, “and we can offer them a $50,000 forgivable loan that they don’t have to pay back, that’s a pretty big incentive for a start-up business,” Cousens said.
‘TRUE SUCCESS STORY’
Carter, head of Pennacook Falls Investment with its new Best Western Plus in Rumford, said the town’s Urban Development Action Grant loan helped pay for early-stage operating costs such as design and engineering.
He’s hoping the new hotel, with 63 rooms “overlooking the falls of Rumford, Maine, which is the largest set of falls east of the Niagara,” will open this time next year and create 20 to 25 jobs.
The $125,000 loan was small in the scope of the $8 million project, “but it kept us moving in the right direction,” Carter said, adding, “We’re doing this for our community and for our families.”
Carter, an engineer who lives in Dixfield, said since a local hotel burned down two years ago, the community is down 50 hotel rooms. Black Mountain of Maine hosts between 20 and 25 weddings a year, and it’s not unusual for guests to stay as far away as Wilton or Auburn.
“My wife’s class reunion, they did it in Portland — she’s from Rumford,” Carter said.
People would like more local options for events and rooms, he said.
Four of Lewiston’s seven economic development loans since 2013 have gone to POMO & Co. at 46 Lisbon St. as husband-wife owners Kevin Morin and Dianna Pozdniakov completely renovated that downtown building. Half of the $27,000 in loans for life safety and facade improvements are forgivable over time after meeting certain conditions.
Morin said it turned out to be a much bigger project than anticipated when they bought the building in 2015. He heard about the economic development loan program from new neighbors and the couple qualified for both those and other federally funded loan and grant programs, including separate funds to clean up contaminated materials.
“We initially thought it was just going to be a help, but in the end, these programs actually did end up being critical in allowing us to make the project happen,” he said.
Today, 46 Lisbon St. is two apartments with a retail storefront on the first floor for Pozdniakov’s high-end handbags company, Sofia Fima.
“For sure there’s a lot of requirements and there’s a lot of paperwork involved, and you have to follow the rules,” Morin said. “In terms of logistics, there’s a lot to keep track of, but the city staff is great to work with. They’re going to do whatever they can to make these projects happen, which we saw.”
In Farmington, Town Manager Richard Davis said the town fields three to four economic development loan requests per year. Loans there have a cap of $25,000 and he couldn’t remember giving one to a business new to town.
“We’ve had a very good success rate,” Davis said. “One of our goals is certainly to assist existing local businesses in expanding and adding employees and remaining local.”
Origin USA last year received two $25,000 town loans for equipment and facade work. Origin USA makes martial arts and other sportswear.
“That one is a true success story,” Davis said. “I’m told there are 35 people working there now. If you can envision 35 people working in our small downtown having lunch, using banking services and shopping on their lunch hour, it’s a boost to our downtown, for sure.”
‘THINGS ARE HAPPENING’
Steuber, in Lisbon, said she’s worked the past five years to raise the revolving loan fund’s profile with loans to businesses facing financing gaps, looking to move there or to expand.
“Lisbon’s been very fortunate in that sense that it’s had some successful loans, so there’s been money in there as far as to be able to loan back out again,” she said. “There’s always going to be risk with things, and I think in the past there has been risk where they’ve had to write off things or companies have folded up. It’s really like anything. That’s why you really look at things really thoroughly.”
Lisbon loaned $100,000 to Frosty’s Donuts in 2016 when it moved to town. When the business closed the next year, Steuber helped match-make to find a new buyer for its building, a hair salon in town looking for a new home. With that sale, Lisbon got its money back and made a new $20,000 economic development loan to The Hair Loft.
“It made perfect sense,” Steuber said. “Anytime that I go to an event, if I go to Portland, no matter where I go, people are saying, ‘Oh my gosh, Tracey, things are happening in Lisbon.’ It makes me feel really good.”
John Cordts at Black Bear Ladder said the company considered Lewiston, Auburn and Lisbon before finding land on Route 196 in a cluster of so-far-undeveloped commercial lots. The new building, which they hope to be in by Oct. 31, will have 20-foot ceilings to fit more ladders, 10,000 square feet, triple the showroom space and twice as many cars going by each day. It will also consolidate its store and warehouse into one.
After growing as much as it could at the Lewiston address, the company added warehouse space half a mile away. It wasn’t perfect.
“The logistics of going back and forth all the time is brutal,” Cordts said. “We’ve done every trick we can think of and we’ve run out of tricks.”
Black Bear Ladder has five employees and he’d like the company to grow by a few more.
The city of Lewiston has been great, he said. For that reason, the couple is a little wistful about the move but looking forward to it.
“Tracey (Steuber) has been amazing to work with,” Crystal Cordts said. “They’ve done nothing but embrace us from day one and want us there.”