LEWISTON – Seeking to calm the nerves of some downtown residents, City Administrator Jim Bennett has promised that no residents will be evicted from their apartments within the next six months so the city could build a new road.

Bennett made the promise after hearing from people who are concerned – and, in some cases, downright angry – about the Heritage Initiative.

Unveiled this past June, the Heritage Initiative is a 10-year conceptual plan aimed at cleaning up the city’s poorest, most crowded neighborhoods by replacing rundown tenement buildings with townhouses, parks and new road construction.

Many residents seem most concerned about a part of the plan that calls for a $4.5 million boulevard that would run from Lincoln Street, cutting across Lisbon, Knox and Birch streets, and end at Bates Street.

Although most of the plan, including the road, is simply an idea at this point, it has instilled fear in many people who live in its path.

At two community meetings held last month to discuss the plan, residents accused city officials of wanting to force poor people out of the downtown.

Bennett has assured them that is not the case.

“We are not looking to drive poor people out. If you want to stay in the area, we want you there,” he said. “Yes, we want to reduce housing units, but we want to do it in a planned way.”

And, he told them repeatedly, “The goals are not solid. They can be modified. They can be changed.”

Bennett explained that only one part of the Heritage Initiative is not up for negotiation – a plan to make room on Maple Street for a new central office building for Community Concepts Inc.

The other elements, he said, are long-term projects that would not happen without input from the community.

“Even under the most aggressive plan,” Bennett said, “the road won’t be built for another three to five years.”

Vote delayed

In addition to promising that no one would be evicted in the next six months, aside for those living in the buildings where the new Community Concepts building will go, Bennett agreed to delay a City Council vote on a proposal to include parts of the neighborhood in the Southern Gateway development district.

The change would give city officials more authority to take property by eminent domain if necessary. The City Council was scheduled to vote in November, but Bennett agreed to postpone it until after March 1.

Some residents wanted Bennett to take his promise a step further by withdrawing a letter to U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, asking for federal money to improve transportation in the downtown neighborhoods.

Bennett refused to go that far.

“Transportation improvements need to be done,” he said. “There is no sense in withdrawing the letter. I don’t think it’s politically smart for us to pull back.”

Barbara Rankins, the neighborhood coordinator for Empower Lewiston, a nonprofit organization that serves downtown residents, said Bennett’s promise to slow down the process has put some people at ease.

But, she said, many remain skeptical

“Some wonder, How much input are we really going to have?'” Rankins said.

Both Bennett and Rankins said they are looking forward to the third community meeting about the Heritage Initiative. Organized by Empower Lewiston, it is scheduled for Nov. 18 at the Multi-Purpose Center.

Instead of simply fielding questions from people, Bennett hopes to gather information about what they like in their neighborhoods and what they would like to see change.

“A lot of work still has to be done,” Rankins said. “But that’s a big step in the right direction.”

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