By Paul Badeau

Lewiston Auburn Economic Growth Council

Like the insurance and real estate business, economic development is built on relationships and, sometimes, a little luck.

Take Geiger Brothers. The way Jere Clifford remembers it, Geiger was one of LDC’s first big breaks. Clifford, an LDC founder who did the legal work for the corporation’s early transactions, recalls that former Lewiston Mayor Al Lessard was a classmate of Geiger president Ray Geiger, and invited Geiger to Lewiston in 1954 to consider relocating his facility here.

It was a shot in the dark.

“Somehow, Al got Ray to come here and take a look,” remembers Clifford, now with Skelton, Taintor & Abbott. “He was driving around to look at various parcels of land when he got a flat tire somewhere near the cemetery. Ray got out to change the flat, looked around, and liked what he saw. It was farmland owned by Alphee Robitaille, and Geiger ultimately bought it. This company from New Jersey was moving its operation to Lewiston. That was a big deal.”

LDC took title to the land on Mount Hope Avenue and deeded it to Geiger. Geiger has been there ever since.

That success was exactly what Clifford, Joe Poliquin, C. Walter Guilmette, Edwin Woodman, and Leo Dube – the founding fathers of LDC – intended on July 15, 1952, when they formed LDC to diversify the city’s predominantly shoe- and textile-intensive economy. Set up as a stock corporation – though they never actually issued stocks – LDC was born. With no money in the coffers, it was a humble beginning.

According to Clifford, LDC began at around the same time presiding Mayor Roland Marcotte announced the creation of a Department of Industrial Development in the City of Lewiston to help secure Lewiston’s future economic prosperity. The Lewiston Chamber of Commerce, the Junior Chamber, the Taxpayers’ Association and Les Vigilants, along with members Clifford, Poliquin and company, explored creating a private corporation to focus on the city’s economic development.

After success with Geiger, LDC next explored development of an industrial park to accommodate a steady stream of interested prospects. “We had read that Lowell, Massachusetts, was doing quite a bit (with an industrial park concept),” said Clifford.

“We had a meeting at St. Joseph’s School cafeteria and invited a gentleman named Joe Sullivan, who was involved with the Lowell venture, to come speak to us. We were selling non-interest bearing bonds for $500 or $1,000 to raise money for the park, and he (Sullivan) wound up buying a bond.”

Clifford said buying the non-interest bearing instruments, known as debentures, was primarily a gesture of civic pride, since LDC didn’t guarantee investors would get their money back if the project failed. Still, enough residents believed in the idea, and through the tireless efforts of Lewiston grocer Roland Carbonneau, who chaired the debenture committee, LDC raised enough money to buy land.

The city and a private developer unveiled early plans for the Lewiston Industrial Park in 1957, says Clifford. According to early LDC meeting minutes, the park initially had 128 acres and could house 20 industries.

As LDC learned early on, however, victories can be fleeting. In 1959, having enjoyed much success with the industrial park, LDC secured an agreement with defense giant Raytheon.

Raytheon was interested in a site on upper Lisbon Street, now the home of Liberty Mutual. The board celebrated the Raytheon deal with a document signing ceremony at the prestigious Dewitt Hotel, hosting Raytheon President Charles Adams.

Several years of operation by Raytheon, however, the agreement was terminated in 1965. LDC did, however, manage to get compensatory payment when Raytheon got out of the agreement. Eventually, the property was sold to RCA for an electronics manufacturing facility, and RCA held title to the property for years before selling to Liberty Mutual.

Projects continued to flourish, and in 1958, LDC explored creating a spec building for clients, such as for Paragon Glassworks in the Lewiston Industrial Park. Paragon leased the building in 1959.

Another watershed event was the purchase of the Bates and Hill mills in 1964. Both mills were experiencing financial pressures in the 1960s and needed fiscal help. LDC formed a shell corporation, called Lewiston Community Enterprise, Inc., and purchased the mills.

The property was leased back to Bates Mill, which eventually became Bates Fabric, and purchased by Bates Mill employees in 1977.

Lucien Gosselin, president of LDC from 1972 to 1974, agrees the mill sales were a turning point for LDC. Eventually, when the mills were sold, it allowed LDC to secure its future, providing funds for continued real estate investment.

“With the exception of some of the very early projects such as Geiger and Raytheon, the Hill Mill sale provided the first real opportunity to capitalize LDC,” says Gosselin.

LDC would later become extraordinarily busy after the Model Cities Program, a federal program to rejuvenate urban centers, awarded Lewiston $2.8 million in 1969 for community development.

In the 1970s, LDC also initiated the Twin Cities’ first loan pool, the Economic Stimulus Loan Pool, which predated many similar federal programs. The pool was initiated by Gosselin, then the city controller.

An innovation as a funding tool, the program was a way to loan money to clients at an attractive rate for projects that may not get financing at traditional institutions. (LDC would eventually vote to transfer the funds to the Lewiston-Auburn Economic Growth Council to administer through its Loan Committee.)

In the 1980s, LDC was approved as a Small Business Administration 503 development corporation. Through the help of LDC and under the LDC umbrella, companies acquired loans for expansions, capital equipment purchases and renovations. LDC would also get involved in land development in the Turnpike Industrial Park.

Gosselin says it’s easy for the community to take for granted what LDC accomplished. “When LDC did the Paragon Glass deal and the building was erected, there was nothing beyond that building but a large mound of gravel – the park just ended there. (Lexington and Forrestal) streets simply didn’t exist (before LDC’s activity).”

Through the stimulus pool and SBA 503 loans, LDC continued to be a valuable partner in economic development. LDC was also instrumental in the creation of the Lewiston Economic Growth Council in 1976. Both LDC and the City of Lewiston each agreed to pay half of the operating expenses for an agency that would focus its efforts on industrial and commercial development in Lewiston.

According to an August 15, 1976, Lewiston Evening Journal story, the Lewiston Economic Growth Council was formed to administer the daily operations of the industrial park, and promote expansion elsewhere in the city. (A precursor to the Lewiston-Auburn Economic Growth Council, the Lewiston Growth Council was dissolved in 1981.)

According to Ed Plourde, LDC president from 1997 to 1999, the late 1980s and ’90s were a time of introspection for LDC, as it wrestled with what its future mission should be. “There was a question of how proactive we should be,” says Plourde. “Should we be involved with developing land across the bridge (in Auburn)? We looked at forming partnerships with Sabattus and Lisbon.

“I was trying to concentrate on forming partnerships, and looking at Auburn, Lewiston, and surrounding communities as one community because of limited resources. I wanted to endorse and help other projects, but concentrate on Lewiston development.”

Plourde cites one example that sparked discussion among board members in the late 1990s. The Auburn Business Development Corporation, LDC’s counterpart in Auburn, had undertaken a campaign to build a spec building in the Kittyhawk Industrial Park, and was selling debentures to raise funds. The board took up a question of whether it should contribute $25,000 for the effort. In the end, the board unanimously passed a motion to contribute.

“The board concluded that what benefits Auburn, benefits Lewiston,” says Plourde.

The Lewiston and Turnpike Industrial Parks continue to be centers of activity. In 2001, LDC signed an option to sell approximately 30 acres in the Turnpike Industrial Park to Gendron & Gendron. It also approved the expansion of Radio City in the TIP, and a new Dunkin’ Donuts regional bakery and Twin City Dental Lab proposal in the Lewiston Industrial Park. LDC also acquired 235 Goddard Road, and leased it to Northeast Charter.

LDC will also collaborate on one of the area’s largest development projects in recent history – the Wal*Mart Distribution Center. LDC will subsidize mobile office space for the Wal*Mart project team. LDC has also contracted with The Sheridan Corporation to design and permit a 40,000 sf. industrial spec building in the Lewiston Industrial Park.

In addition to buying and selling land, or financing projects, LDC has evolved into an organization that advocates for important business and community issues and projects.

“There’s been a shift in focus for LDC,” agrees Ken Additon, who finishes his term as LDC president this month. “Early on, the focus was on individual subdivision projects. Up until a few years ago, we were sitting on a bunch of land. It was hard to get a return on investment. We decided we ought to be more proactive with our resources and get things going.”

For example, in 1999, around the time when Diamond Machine Tools changed its name to Diamond Phoenix, LDC assisted with the company relocation through financial assistance allowing the company to build its new world headquarters on Alfred Plourde Parkway. The 102,000-square-foot facility is state of the art, equipped with robotics and sophisticated powder-paint processes serving the materials handling industry.

Additon cites another example of LDC’s proactive approach in the recent acquisition of a property on Westminster Street that may one day be used for an expansion at Lewiston-Auburn College.

“We’re now leveraging our assets with the public and private sectors,” says Additon. “We’re being more proactive in having spec buildings available in inventory. With the Diamond Phoenix project, we wanted to go forward and have our equity paid out fairly early. Our business is to stimulate development, not own a whole lot of land.”

Additon says the Auburn Business Development Corporation’s recent success in constructing a spec building in Auburn Kittyhawk Industrial Park, and immediately selling it to Angostura, confirmed in his mind that LDC needed an inventory of buildings ready for lease or sale.

“Companies today want a building right away and don’t have time to go through the regulatory process, Department of Environmental Protection permitting, and getting contractors lined up. They want a building that’s ready to move into, he explained.

LDC has also partnered with the Auburn Business Development Corporation and LAEGC to support a Foreign Trade Zone at the Auburn Intermodal Facility. The Trade Zone will help local companies eliminate trade tariffs on imported raw materials and goods. LDC is also partnering with the City of Lewiston to conduct an acreage inventory for a Wetlands Mitigation Banking program.

As Ed Plourde sees it, one reason LDC has thrived over the years is not just because of a keen ability to leverage money, but also because of its leadership caliber.

“The make-up of our board has always been diverse, qualified and committed, and that is the reason it has survived for 50 years,” says Plourde. “LDC’s mission is unselfish – to look after the economic well-being of the community.”

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