Panera Breads in negotiations, Best Buy may jump the river to Lewiston and finally theres something doing at the Auburn Mall.

Hello, 2006.

After a year of near-monthly announcements from Lewiston or Auburn that whet retail appetites, there are hints next year could be even bigger.

Among the anticipated revelations: announcements at the would-be shopping center off Lewistons exit 80.

Neighbors for Kohls, Wal-Mart and Lowes.

And, after appearing on deadmalls.com, news of a new anchor tenant at the former home of Porteous, GAP and Express. Shoppers are ready &tstr; or downright anxious &tstr; judging from the response to a Sun Journal reader retail poll where more than 800 people voted over 10 days.

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Theyre unequivocally exuberant for Olive Garden, absolutely riotous for Target. And more.

PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE…CHRISTMAS TREE SHOP THANK YOU sums it up quite nicely.

All that shopping fervor is not for naught.

Were going to see some new things happen, some major things happen, said Roland Miller, Auburns economic development director. From what Im hearing from the developers moving forward with projects, Auburn is a hot area.

Its sister city isnt faring too poorly either. Miller says that the electronics and gadgetry chain Best Buy, announced for Auburn, is now considering Lewiston instead.

Everybody looks for the best deal. We know that they are looking at their opportunities within the Twin Cities, Miller said. The good news is that theyre looking at the Twin Cities.

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To appreciate that progress, lets recap:

For years people drove from as far away as Canada to shop here. But, with the fall of major department stores in Lewistons downtown, and the slow, long drought at the mall, much of that shopping went somewhere else.

Corporate newcomers considered Portland Maines first market of choice, Bangor its second and, in the late 1990s, Augusta snagged third with a string of new developments off the Maine Turnpike.

For a long time, (Lewiston and Auburn) were old mill towns. Just nothing happening, said Lincoln Jeffers, Lewistons deputy director of economic and community development.

A visible sign of that retail ennui: the old Wal-Mart on Mount Auburn Avenue. It sat empty for two years before developer George Schott came along in October 2003. While he marketed the space, it sat vacant for most of the next 18 months.

Christmas Tree Shop and others wouldnt bite.

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Having that empty Wal-Mart there, it was a detriment. Everyone looked at it. It looked like a ghost town, Schott said.

The corner was so quiet, when Starbucks moved into the former, forlorn-looking bank on the nearby bluff you could hear a latt drip.

Then came Kohls.

(Cue dove release and Hallelujah!)

Described by Miller as the most significant retail news of 2005, the city lured the slightly upscale big box with returned tax money and traffic improvements, signaling a change in its no-incentive policy.

About four years ago, developers for Kohls made preliminarily commitments in that area, but negotiations fell through.

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We elected to get involved to accelerate the pace of redevelopment, Miller said.

After word hit, announcements on Ruby Tuesday and Longhorn Steakhouse quickly followed at Schotts new development across the street.

It all boiled around the Kohls, he said. Everybody likes to move where theres action. People in the past 10 years skipped over Lewiston-Auburn, perhaps to their chagrin. Everybody that builds here, its their best performing store in the state, Schott added.

2005 has &tstr; so far &tstr; seen the opening of stores like Hot Topic, Pac Sun and an expanded Christopher & Banks at the Auburn Mall, a slew of eateries (see related story,) Dollar Tree and an L.L.Bean clearance center at the old Ames.

The Maine outfitter opened in November to a spending frenzy: 500 people waiting at the door and a police officer for crowd control.

Things are breaking out all over up there, said Mike Miller, a commercial broker with NAI/Dunham Group. Its exciting.

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Site locators have noticed Lewiston-Auburns improved image, the millions in new investments, the tony homes and the slight population increase, said Paul Badeau at the Lewiston-Auburn Growth Council. All of these activities have got people thinking twice. All of that says people need to spend money here, buy things here, they need to eat.

Starbucks opened in September after passing L-A over years ago when it considered incomes here too low. Kevin Fletcher at Coldwell Banker Millett Realty helped broker the deal.

Its a funny story. They were actually driving from a site visit to Bangor. I said, Where are you? &tstr; they were on the Turnpike, just above Lewiston. I said, Get off the exit, come take a look at this. It just happened to be the right time.

Please re-lease me

2006 could be the year L-A reclaims its retail glory.

Primed and ready, on paper: 70 acres near exit 80, another 80 acres near exit 75, plus three existing parcels in Auburn and the mall. Theyre each vying for tenants. Its all up for grabs.

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Ben Devine (developer at exit 80) is chasing the same group of retailers that Im chasing, which is the same Jeremy Sclar (Kohls developer) is chasing, said Craig Young, broker for CBRE/Boulos Co. He negotiates for developer Schott and delivered to him both Kohls and, two weeks ago, the Auburn Mall. It all comes down to who gets them.

In an ideal world, Schott would love to see Costco or Target come to the Auburn Mall. But hes had enough experience dealing with national retailers to know how dicey negotiations can be. So, like most developers, hes notoriously close-mouthed. Until a lease is signed, anything can happen.

A case in point:

Auburn City Manager Pat Finnigan announced in September that Best Buy would open a store next to Kohls or across the street. But the electronics retailer is considering other locations in Auburn, and even contemplating Lewistons turnpike development, according to Miller. Rich Roedner, planner for the town of Topsham, said he had three developers in his office this year, each claiming they had locked down Best Buy. To date &tstr; nothing firm anywhere. And the official company line?

Unfortunately, I cant really comment on a potential store until a lease has been signed, said Jay Musolf, Best Buy spokesman.

But the lack of grist doesnt stop the rumor mill from churning. Bed, Bath & Beyond, Walgreens, T.G.I. Fridays, another Wal-Mart, Target, Unos, Dicks Sporting Goods and Olive Garden have all been bandied about this year. Representatives for each have either declined to comment or said there are no public plans for L-A in 2006.

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Add to that a tantalizingly vague bit from Federated Department Stores, Macys parent: We cant comment on the rumors at this time.

And one happy exception: Panera Bread. The specialty coffee shop/bakery confirms its in negotiations for a spot in Lewiston.

In fact our broker has had some conversations with the landlords and the developers in the (exit 80) area, said Mitchell Roberts, owner of PR Restaurants, the companys Northeast franchisee. Nothing to announce, no deals done certainly, but there are ongoing conversations.

Schott figures theres room for about 300,000 square feet of new retail development around the Auburn Mall/Mount Auburn Avenue area. (In comparison, the mall itself is about that same size.)

Like every (developer), Im working on somebody, he said.

Between two parcels at exit 80, theres room for 600,000 square feet of shopping. Developer KGI Properties has sunk $250,000 in the site to date, but still hasnt got a firm footprint for the complex or an anchor tenant to announce. Lewiston officials announced in September that news of the first big box there was imminent.

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Theres all sorts of conjecture. Bottom line: nobody has signed on, nobody has committed at this point, Jeffers said. But, something to keep in mind: Stores love to be up by the fourth quarter of the year to get Christmas sales. Thats always going to be a driver.

Get on board the shopping gravy train?

Miller also declined to drop any names for who to expect on his side of the river. Young, the broker, said he has a letter of intent from another restaurant to go near Longhorns, but cant say who yet.

L-A is a growing market, he added. Young believes Portland and Augusta have hit the very developed stage and the Twin Cities are next.

He suspects within a year some of the same tenants already in Augusta, Portland and Bangor will be bound for L-A. You probably wont get a new retailer in the state, but the Best Buys, the Dicks &tstr; they are evaluating the market, looking and testing.

Jeffers and some brokers are hoping out loud that L.L.Bean will stay beyond its February lease in the old Ames and become a more permanent fixture. There arent any plans for that now, according to a spokesman.

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The opening date for Kohls next year has yet to be set. The company says it doesnt announce such things until a store is half-built and, right now, its little but bare ground where the original Wal-Mart once stood. Itll undoubtedly open to fanfare and sales.

All of a sudden this has kind of become a hot place. Places have momentum. For a long time, our momentum was negative, said Chip Morrison, president of the Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce. I dont think theres anything that could reverse it at this point.

Thats exactly what local shoppers want to hear.

In the words of reader Susan, one of hundreds to weigh in with their retail wish lists:

My personal big three are Target, Borders (Id settle for Barnes & Noble…) and Panera. After that, anything is gravy.

[email protected], [email protected]


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