AUBURN – Downtown developers have to get off the ground floor to make redevelopment projects work, Twin Cities development officials said at a statewide conference held here Wednesday.

Successfully developing the upper floors can make or break a project, said Auburn Economic Development Director Roland Miller.

“It’s clear, if you can make an entire building accessible, you can allow for reinvestment,” Miller said. “It has to be worth it for a developer to get involved. They have to get a return on their investment.”

Miller, Lewiston Economic and Community Development Deputy Director Lincoln Jeffers, and developer Chris Merrill of American Holdings Inc., spoke at the fourth annual Maine Downtown Center Conference held at the Hilton Garden Inn. They talked about roadblocks they have faced in redeveloping cities.

Projects in Lewiston and Auburn’s downtowns have narrow profit margins because of old buildings, building and fire codes and small building sizes. The buildings tend to be in need of expensive work just to bring them up to code. That can mean installing new stairways or elevators.

“And that takes away leasable space,” Jeffers said.

Most downtown properties are small to begin with and have little space to spare.

Cities need to try, Miller said.

“Communities tend to have cycles in their downtowns,” Miller said. “If they don’t redevelop and let the tax base erode, there’s a double whammy. Not only do they have less revenue coming in, those areas begin to demand more city services, like police.”

Miller said both Lewiston and Auburn have had to be more flexible to encourage development. That’s meant finding federal and state grants to make projects feasible, changing zoning codes to allow redevelopment and working with developers to close projects.

The conference brought an estimated 200 planning officials and real-estate developers to the Auburn downtown for a day of seminars and speeches.

Topics ranged from a survey of state government policies that affect downtown projects to marketing, getting and using tax credits and shaping a downtown’s image.

“There is something about a healthy downtown that speaks to everyone,” said Ken Young, chairman of the Maine Downtown Center Advisory Board.

“Virtually everyone, regardless of age, has some good experience involving a downtown,” he said. “Whether it was shopping or getting ice cream, it’s something people remember and something they want for their own towns, no matter how big they are.”

The conference has become more popular each year as government officials and developers try to emulate successes, such as Lewiston and Auburn.

“People are really looking for practical tips,” Young said. “There’s a lot to learn here, that they can take back home with them.”

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