Fuel has walls full of votive candles, chocolate-toned decor and a waitstaff that looks like it was recruited from modeling camp. The seven-month-old restaurant serves dishes like frog legs and potato crusted halibut over wilted spinach. Owner Eric Agren usually works the floor; he’s flirted with offering valet parking, unheard of in Lewiston. On weekends, it’s reservation-required to get in the door.

Across the street is a decaying McCrory’s department store that just got a city-ordered facelift: new plywood covering all the windows.

It’s the most striking example on a street filled with contradictions. Just four blocks away: millions of dollars in new investment – new Northeast Bank, new Andover College, new Oxford Networks headquarters, and more – buttressed by pawn shops. Up and down the sidewalk are vacant windows, ethnic everything-shops and lavish, monied offices. After 100 years as a retail destination and nerve center, the downtown’s become a collection of working professionals (mostly lawyers and bankers), service providers and empty storefronts, punctuated by new ventures that seem to close too quickly.

Lisbon Street, partly responsible for remnants of the city’s downtrodden reputation, partly a source of pride the last five years, is a street in flux.

• A jarring space created when four buildings were lost to an arson fire went up for sale last month.

• Lewiston’s talking to the state about loosening rehab codes to get more people living above storefronts. It’s talking to Auburn about developing downtowns together.

• A hotel is planned for Island Point a block away – more foot traffic, more incentive to invest. Fuel owner Agren’s got ideas already for a second restaurant, a slightly-upscale chop or steakhouse next to the popular Fuel.

• Western Maine Community Action Health Services moved into a prominent storefront last week at the former Chamber of Commerce site. Just a block away, a new coffeehouse (Guthrie’s) and a new performing arts venue (The Maple Room).

Up and down, there isn’t a muted emotion on Lisbon Street. Talk to owners and you’ll hear the full range. They love it. They hate it. Parking’s a problem. It’s not. The city – the largest landowner down there – needs to wake up, or it seriously needs its hand shaken.

The future of the street has arguably never been more in the balance: A recommendation on the fate of Bates Mill no. 5 is due in six months – a potential convention center space could bring a slew of retail and restaurant tagalongs.

Has lower Lisbon Street’s time come? We fanned out and talked to current and former business and building owners. We asked them what they’d like to see, why they stay or why they left.

Their answers were candid, and as varied at the strip itself.

It’s love

Paul Poliquin loves what he does, and where he does it. He said it’s never been a better time to be on Lisbon Street. Poliquin’s worked downtown since 1976, five days after high school graduation. He’s owned Paul’s Clothing and Shoe Store, home of the seemingly endless Carhartt sale, since 1992. He added a women’s line this summer. Walk-ins are up the last two years.

City Administrator Jim Bennett’s vision, “it’s all paying off,” he said. “What’s the first thing people see? Brand new buildings.”

He’d like: A pharmacy, more city emphasis on attracting business to the stretch of street between the gap left by arson to Main Street.

***

Debbie Littleton moved her Joyful Hope Gift Shop from Bates Mill no. 2 to Lisbon Street in May. It’s sunny, spacious and tall enough for her bookshelves. The face of the street changes hour to hour, she said. She hadn’t originally considered the location, and isn’t sure she would have made the move if there were as many adult stores as there used to be.

“We are digging downtown like a shovel,” Littleton said. “I’d love to buy the building. We’ll see about that as the future comes.”

She’d like: Hardware, clothing stores.

***

Everybody knows the big yellow building with painted murals, Lewiston Pawn Shop owner Rick LaChapelle said. It’s the oldest-running business on that end of downtown.

He’s seen foot traffic pick up, but the street still dies at 5 p.m.

“We’ve seen the evolution downtown. It’s amazing,” LaChapelle said.

He’d like: “I encourage continued development, as long as they don’t earmark my business for continued development.” (Nervous about eminent domain.)

***

For generations, Fredda Wolf‘s building has housed lawyers. A partner at Hardy, Wolf and Downing, their office underwent a major, half-million-dollar renovation in 2003.

“I felt strongly that we started out as a downtown firm and we should remain a downtown firm. … If we say loud and clear we’re putting money into Lewiston, it encourages others,” Wolf said.

She’d like: More arts, galleries, food, housing.

***

Oxford Networks was part of the $20-million-plus rebirth of the Southern Gateway in 2004. Employees have been happy to see more restaurants, but they’d love a coffee shop. (The frequent rumor: Starbucks is coming.)

“Everyone likes to be part of something new and exciting and innovating. That’s what we’re all about,” said Matt Jancovic, director of marketing and customer service.

He’d like: More drivers to yield to pedestrians: “We see a lot of near misses.”

***

Eric Agren chose Lisbon Street for the architecture, the price and the potential. He, his wife and their Lab pup live above Fuel. The restaurant was booked up two months ahead of time for Bates College’s friends and family weekend in September.

Between 400 and 500 diners walk down Lisbon Street to Fuel each week.

“It doesn’t seem to matter that there’s a boarded up building across the street. First, I give credit to the people,” Agren said. “If you’re going to be one of the first into a market, you have to accept things like that.”

He’d like: More places like Fuel, maybe a wine shop, public market.

***

Andover College is doing tremendously, says its president, Chris Quinn. One nagging challenge: getting drivers to brake for pedestrians.

“We’re busting at the seams,” said Quinn. He wants to stay at the same location. They’ll find a way to expand. “We’ll be here for the long haul.”

He’d like: Anything people can walk to or interact with (art galleries, specialty grocery store, restaurants, bookstore).

Some hard feelings

Brian Kendall opened Legal Eagle deli in 2003. He says he lost $70,000 and went without a salary for a year before closing. The courthouse clientele it was named after, Kendall said, didn’t turn out to be in a portobello mushroom and espresso mood.

“Number one, they’re coming out with no money because they have fines, this is Lewiston, or they’re not coming out – I hadn’t thought of that,” he said.

Kendall’s upset the city didn’t help when he was going under and he tried to get into a different building.

He’d like: “Lewiston should kick itself in the ass and really develop a downtown arts district.”

***

Kris Cornish bought the Lisbon Street landmark Drapeau’s costume shop in August 2006. She moved it out of Lewiston last April.

Rent was “dirt cheap,” but she says the ceiling leaked. February’s heating bill came to $1,400. And most customers drove to the store, so parking was a constant pain.

“The only people who came to me on foot were people waiting for a court date or people from the projects who didn’t have a car,” she said. “How can they afford to rent (a costume) when they can’t afford a car?”

She’d like: “You’ve got to have a dry cleaner down there, some little boutique things”; and a program for free or cheap parking when customers get parking stubs validated by local businesses.

***

Julie Warner reluctantly closed The Page Turner this summer. Her bookstore didn’t do the business she needed. Warner’s frustrated at the city, in one example, saying that when she asked about blocking off the street for a weekly festival or farmer’s market no one got back to her.

“Unless they try to do something soon, there’s not going to be a downtown,” Warner said.

She’d like: Restore historic charm; bring back small businesses.

It’s something in between

It wasn’t meant to be a cafe, but after Manic Designs opened downtown as a space for people with disabilities to sell their wares, the food sold better than the art. Over three and a half years, the business was busy at lunch and a hot spot of sorts, but it never came close to breaking even, according to owner Linda Hertell.

“I kept hanging on, hoping,” Hertell said. “I wanted to be part of something happening again. Everybody misses the downtown.”

She’d like: An arts vibe that starts at the Franco Center, runs down Lisbon Street and ends at Island Point; and a downtown venture capital group.

***

Norm Rousseau‘s convinced the downtown will be in demand, someday. A city councilor, he owns Twin City Liquidation, a furniture store. Specialty retail will probably do well when someday gets here. He doesn’t hold out the same hope for the 5 and 10s.

“I think the future of the downtown depends on what goes in those (empty) lots. It always takes a few people to get the ball rolling and then it flows.”

He’d like: A barbershop and specialty business.

***

When Joan Pelletier opened a second Just Joan’s at Mr. Paperback up the street, she started losing businesses to herself. Customers were going to the cafe at the more convenient location, with more parking, so that’s the one she kept. (The Mr. Paperback location eventually closed, too, when gas prices went up.)

She enjoyed Lisbon Street.

“We knew everybody in that area had limited time at lunch. People could call ahead, we busted butt at lunchtime,” she said. “I miss the people, not the headaches, but the people.”

She’d like: Better parking.

***

J. Dostie Jewelers has been downtown 60 years. Owners have never thought about leaving. The location just works for them.

Dan Dostie is “cautiously optimistic” about Lisbon Street’s prospects: “Revitalization is there. It’s just not everywhere.”

He’d like: More restaurants, more green space.

***

Even after $800,000 in renovations, Emilio Andoniades said he has trouble luring people into his building. He owns Athenian Enterprises, among other businesses, and lives above the storefront.

He says he refuses to call it quits.

“One of the problems we have is, downtown is dead. My section is deadlier than the rest.”

He’d like: More investment. “The city says they don’t have the money, but they bought the Colisee.”

***

Tony Briglio figures catering has kept Antonio’s New York Deli in business. He’s interested in the ongoing revitalization and thinks there’s missed opportunity to promote the area (start historic tours, show off the falls).

“There’s really no major development. I have two empty stores beside me. How does that look?” Briglio asked.

He’d like: “If parking were better, it would probably make my business 100 percent better.”

***

Someone set fire to the building in 2005 and there’s an ongoing litter issue, but Kimberly Doucette, who co-owns Doucette Insurance, said she has more positives than negatives about relocating downtown. People are nice. The city seems to be doing a good job (they intervened when she complained about loitering kids).

“Our clients, they like it down here,” Doucette said.

She’d like: More parking and more trash cans.

***

Matt Graham owned Bodega International for two years. It closed after a string of nearby construction projects, torn up sidewalks and reams of caution tape kept customers away.

When he interviewed for a job later at Andover College, he mentioned, “‘You know, you guys put me out of business, don’t you think you owe me something?’ I was fortunate, the people were kind of funny.”

He got the job. “It’s another very ironic thing. I teach business.”

He’d like: The city to take a more active roll in small business. At the time, he complained to city employees about the construction. “They said, ‘You know, Matt, I understand what you’re going through, I love your shop, but there’s nothing we can do for you.’ I said ‘Well, I guess this is capitalism.'”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.