LEWISTON — Jason Levesque walked inside the former McCrory’s department store on Lisbon Street for the first time and stepped on a dead pigeon.
An engineer’s report questioned how the building was still standing.
Brunswick, half an hour away, had turnkey space available for nearly $1 million less.
None of that deterred him.
After working behind the scenes for almost a year, city officials and Levesque, CEO and founder of Argo Marketing Group, on Thursday announced a $2.4 million project to rehab the 100-year-old building into space for up to 250 jobs, a cafe and retail storefronts.
Eighty jobs will move from Argo’s leased space down the street and 150 will be new positions that Levesque plans to fill by April 2014.
At a packed news conference in front of the 25,000-square-foot brick building, Levesque thanked Mayor Bob Macdonald for his encouragement throughout the early planning, joking that the mayor had been less than subtle.
“(He) coerced, back-talked me, just had me against the wall, saying, ‘If you don’t do this, I’ll never speak to you again,'” Levesque said. “He’s been with me, along with other city officials, every step of the way.”
Plans call for Argo to use the second floor for workers, and for entrepreneurs to open a cafe facing Dufresne Plaza and retail shops facing Lisbon Street. Construction will start this summer, with doors opening in December.
Macdonald praised the project as the dawning of a new day for the building.
“Argo will be in good company as amazing things have happened in this block for the last few years,” he said, ticking off a slew of new restaurants and businesses.
On Tuesday, the City Council will be asked to approve three details of the project:
* A facade grant of up to $150,000 (half grant, half no-interest loan, requiring a 1-1 match from Argo);
* A life safety grant of up to $100,000 under the same terms;
* And a 10-year tax-increment financing agreement projected to return $147,000 in property taxes to Argo over a decade. The city would use the remainder of the new tax revenue, projected at $198,400, for economic development, said Lincoln Jeffers. economic and community development director for the city of Lewiston.
Levesque said his interest in 64 Lisbon St. began after a breakfast with the mayor and others at Simones’ Hot Dog Stand. Conversation turned to downtown revitalization and why Levesque, of Auburn, had recently expanded his marketing company to Pittsfield instead of the Twin Cities. (He’d needed more space immediately, he said. Snapping up a former call center there made sense.) But it turned out he was looking to expand again.
Levesque’s initial impression of the McCrory’s space: “It was daunting, but I looked at it as massive potential.”
He said he wanted to be part of Lisbon Street’s revival and drew inspiration from those who’d begun investing and living downtown, a movement kicked off eight years ago when Eric Agren opened the restaurant Fuel and moved above it.
“(Agren’s) encouragement was critical,” Levesque said. “He would see me banging around that building and come running across that street and go, ‘Get it done, get it done, get it done. I can’t look at this anymore; I’m going crazy.'”
Agren called the renovation “a game-changer.” The long-boarded-up building faces the upscale Fuel and neighbors Agren’s second restaurant, Marche.
“I believe it will spur even further investment and development instantly,” Agren said. “I would predict that so many jobs being filled in that location will absolutely help all the businesses directly surrounding it.”
The new positions will be full-time in a variety of areas: entry-level call takers, software programmers, client services, data analytics and Argo’s social media division. Starting pay will range from $10 to $13 an hour with benefits. Employees will park in the city’s nearby Oak Street parking garage.
Argo plans to work with the CareerCenter for some of the new hires. On Thursday, Levesque also announced a $1,000 new-hire signing bonus for military veterans, and veterans and active members of the Maine National Guard and Reserve, and their spouses, to much applause. Levesque is a U.S. Army veteran.
The new offices will have 180 work stations and will support three shifts. It won’t have a cafeteria, by design: Employees will be encouraged to eat, and explore, downtown.
“From a professional level, it’s probably the most exciting thing I’ve ever done,” Levesque said. “This concept has been a dream of mine since 2008. This is giving back and not just a charitable contribution. This is injecting $5 million a year in payroll directly into Lewiston’s downtown.”