The specter of abandoned mills is fading away as the Twin Cities rebuild from the ground up.
LEWISTON – Beside bars, pawn shops and porn stores on lower Lisbon Street sit the new brick facades and painted steel of a $20 million development.
A quarter-mile away, a new fountain springs in front of a dilapidated mill building. Across the street, the shell of another mill is hidden behind a sign advertising condos with “million dollar views.”
Building by building and block by block, Lewiston-Auburn is undergoing an extreme makeover.
It’s the proof – the plain-as-a-bank-statement evidence – that the city’s reputation as a blighted mill town is changing.
At least for businesses.
“With these guys, everything is by the numbers,” said Roland Miller, Auburn’s economic development director. “It’s all about sales volume per square foot.’ Everybody has to make money. If they can’t, they don’t come.”
Right now, they’re coming.
In Lewiston alone, more than $300 million has been invested in new businesses and city improvements since 2000. More than $100 million has been spent in Auburn over the same period.
New, large-scale retail and housing developments are planned for both cities. Long-sought-after stores such as Best Buy and Kohl’s are coming. New restaurants are opening.
Even small, out-of-town businesspeople such as Andrew Dumond of Augusta are watching.
The candy store owner listens to the TV ads and reads the newspaper. And most importantly, he drives through the cities.
The effect is something Lewiston City Administrator Jim Bennett describes as the “Windshield wow’ factor.” The biggest impact always comes from seeing the changes firsthand.
Dumond rattled off some of the changes that he’s seen: improvements to the riverfront, the new brew pub in a once-forlorn Auburn building and the rehabbed city arena, once a muddy embarrassment.
“It’s the up-and-coming place in Maine,” Dumond said.
They are words to warm Bennett and Miller’s hearts.
Dumond plans to back up his words with money.
Inside of two years, he plans to open a Kennebec Chocolates shop here in Maine’s “It” spot.
It’s an image that Lewiston-Auburn has sought for decades, as the community fought to shake its down-and-out image.
“The image of the old mill town is gone,” said Gerard Dennison, an analyst with the Maine Department of Labor who has been studying the region’s economy for more than a decade.
“It’s Happening Here’ is not just a slogan,” said Dennison, who also serves on the board of the Lewiston-Auburn Economic Growth Council, which came up with the marketing slogan in 2002. The group began putting up banners and circulating bumper stickers in 2003. A year later, it began airing TV commercials with local celebrities including former Major League shortstop Mike Bordick, comedian Bob Marley and former Gov. Angus King.
The growth council plans to test the campaign’s effectiveness this summer with a telephone survey of hundreds of Mainers. After all, nobody really knows how much the image of the cities has changed since the effort began.
“It’s pretty undeniable that the public perception has changed,” said Paul Badeau, the council’s marketing director. “We just need to get a measure.”
The results could predict Lewiston-Auburn’s future.
Doyle Hyett, a Virginia-based consultant to cities and towns across the country, believes a city’s reputation is its most valuable asset.
“It’s the catalyst for everything else that happens,” Hyett said. Entrepreneurs don’t put their money into a place that no one likes. Homeowners don’t move to ugly or scary places.
He uses two sayings to make his point:
“The first is, Nobody wants to live in a town that has a dump for a downtown.’ The other is, If you keep a rat’s nest, what do you attract?'”
Marketing campaigns such as “It’s Happening Here” can help, he said.
They can’t lie, though.
“You’d better fulfill the promise,” he said. “It takes more than a new civic auditorium. It’d better be happening there.”
Dennison believes it is.
The state labor analyst, who still lives in the Auburn house where he grew up, has prepared a computer slide show that charts new investment and employment levels for more than a decade.
In 1991, as the country was experiencing a recession with unemployment reaching nearly 7 percent, Maine’s rate was 7.5 percent. And Lewiston-Auburn, reeling from the loss of traditional manufacturing jobs, was 9. 5 percent.
By 2000, unemployment in Lewiston-Auburn had fallen to 3.4 percent, better than the national average of just above 5 percent and mirroring the Maine rate.
Though the local rate has climbed again to 5 percent, roughly the national average, Dennison said jobs are being added to the workforce. The Lewiston-Auburn area has 300 more than it did a year ago.
He predicted that new or growing businesses would add 800 more jobs in the next year.
The new $60 million Wal-Mart distribution center is scheduled to add 250 jobs. Restaurants Ruby Tuesday and the LongHorn Steakhouse should account for 90 more. The Hilton Garden Inn in Auburn is scheduled to begin an expansion in the coming weeks.
Auburn is set to begin work on a new industrial park and, in Lewiston, developers are about to announce the tenants of a new retail development near Exit 80 of the Maine Turnpike.
“We are backing up the claims of It’s Happening Here’ with real development,” Dennison said.
Miller credited Wal-Mart with much of the change in retail development.
Until the late 1990s, national chains often ignored Lewiston-Auburn altogether. To them, it wasn’t even a market.
“You had Portland, and you had Augusta,” Miller said. Standardized market analyses created circles over the cities that overlapped in Lewiston-Auburn.
The companies decided that people here would leave town to go shopping, Miller said.
But when Wal-Mart opened a store in Auburn in 2000, it became one of the company’s most profitable stores on the East Coast.
Other retailers – who believed the market was too small or the demographics showed too little money – began to rethink their analyses, Miller said.
“This market has been underserved for a long, long time,” he said.
As new development adds jobs, Dennison hopes salaries will also climb.
According to the 2000 census, the average Maine household makes an income of about $37,240. In Lewiston, the average household made $29,191 – 21 percent less than the state average.
In a practical sense, bigger salaries mean more spending at new stores and restaurants. Dennison has larger hopes, though.
Professional and managerial jobs would improve the cities far beyond any cosmetic changes, he said.
Improvements such as the construction and expansion of Andover College on Lisbon Street will raise the city higher than a new home electronics store or another restaurant.
Image is important. So is quality of life.
In the nine-year period between 2003 and 2012, Dennison predicts that Lewiston-area wages will climb by 10. 3 percent overall.
According to his projections, someone without at least an associate’s degree would see a hike of 8.5 percent. Someone with a two-year degree would see wages rise by 21 percent
“Education is the long-term fix,” he said. “It’s what will keep us growing.”