Mill a big part of Lewiston’s image makeover

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The following is an excerpt from an interview with former Lewiston Mayor James Howaniec recounting the day the Bates Mill landed in the city’s lap. It was first published in the Sun Journal on Oct. 24, 1998. In the words of Howaniec:

“It’s been six years now since we had that late afternoon meeting in November of 1992 when we got the call from Fred Lebel at the Bates Mill, saying that he was going to have to close the doors because the heat was going to be shut off.

“It was early November; winter was coming. If the pipes froze, the roof was going to cave in. We were going to have acres of dilapidated mill buildings on our hands in the heart of downtown.

“So, it wasn’t a decision that was made that night, but (eventually) the city essentially decided to take over the building. Tom Platz was involved right from the start for what, to me, appears to be an obvious reason.

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“Tom Platz has been the most successful developer in the Twin Cities in recent decades. He has an expertise and an experience that is unmatched, in my opinion, anyway, by anyone. As I look back at it, we called him (and) he approached it very cautiously at the outset. This wasn’t something that he immediately, enthusiastically jumped into. He was certainly very interested, and was very helpful.

“Now, if there were someone tomorrow who would come forward with $50 million and give it to us and turn the Bates Mill around within the next year, I’m sure the city would love to talk to them. But I haven’t seen anyone coming forward, not when I was in politics, not since I have been out of politics.

“I left office on Jan. 1, 1994. John Jenkins took over, and now Kaileigh Tara, and there has been a progression that has been progressive and it’s been controversial. But, from my perspective, I really think it’s been the appropriate course and I think we should continue to aggressively develop the mill space.

“Like I was telling John (Jenkins) the other day, we’ve got a downtown here that is really misunderstood by a lot of people. We all know that on the second and third floors of a lot of these buildings there are hundreds of office workers and a lot of the downtown economy is as healthy as it ever was.

“But there’s an image problem, created primarily by the empty storefronts that define the city of Lewiston. A lot of people when they think of Lewiston, they don’t think of the four-fifths of the city that is a beautiful, safe, well-maintained, well-managed community.

“People from Portland or Bangor or Boston, they don’t think of upper Main Street, or outer Sabattus Street, or the Holy Cross neighborhood or Pleasant Street. They think of the Kennedy Park neighborhood. A 1-square-mile radius that encompasses Knox Street, the Bates Mill and Lincoln Street. In my humble opinion, if we don’t do something about that, the next 50 to a 100 years, we’re going to continue to be defined by this one-fifth of the city.

“If we don’t do something … we are going to continue to be an aging community where people like my parents who are 74 years old in their little, single-family homes, are going to move into nursing homes and taxes are going to continue to erode. I think the Bates Mill has to be a big part of that image makeover.

“… If we get hundreds of acres of empty mill space in the heart of our downtown, there is going to be a negative impact on Lisbon Street all the way up.”

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