LEWISTON – A fact-finding mission to a retail convention in Boston snagged interest from a regional developer, as well as some evidence that Maine’s anti-big-box image is fading.

Paul Badeau, marketing director of the Lewiston-Auburn Economic Growth Council, attended the International Council of Shopping Center’s annual convention a little more than a week ago. His goal: To assess the likelihood of more retail development in the two cities, which each have designated retail zones.

What he found: That Lewiston-Auburn is a known entity in the retail world; real estate developers are interested in siting projects here; and that the negative vibes associated with Maine’s new restrictions on big-box stores at last year’s convention were gone.

“There was no hostility, quite the opposite,” said Badeau of the inquiries and interest in L-A.

Badeau made the decision to go to the July 10 event after consulting with the cities’ economic development directors. Auburn has hundreds of thousands of square feet zoned for retail in the Mount Auburn Avenue area. Lewiston has been trying for several years to launch its own 75-acre retail hub, centered at Exit 80 of the turnpike.

That project lost its momentum last winter when Wal-Mart walked away from a Supercenter it announced for that location two years ago. Both cities also want to revive retail options in their downtowns.

The ICSC convention typically attracts hundreds of retailers, developers, real estate agents and others who talk turkey over the 2-day event. Badeau rode the train down and back for one day of the event.

“I made some interesting contacts, including one company that is really hot about getting to Auburn,” said Badeau. The company – a real estate development firm that represents a variety of retailers – was particularly interested in Auburn’s mall area. Badeau said he sent the agent information about available land, its asking price, infrastructure and zoning. He also included contact information for the land owner, George Schott, and the city development staff.

“They were interested because of the existing retail activity there and the available land,” said Badeau, adding that the agent did receive information from city staff. “That’s the goldmine. If you have parcels that are targeted and zoned and the owner is willing to sell.”

Schott said Friday he had not been contacted by anyone yet about the land he owns in the area. Badeau said the agent represents discount retailers, clothing store chains and big boxes, among others.

The inquiry was reassuring given Maine’s activity restricting big-box development, he said.

Last year the Legislature passed a law that requires an economic impact study whenever a proposed project is bigger than 75,000 square feet. The law drew a lot of comment at last year’s ICSC convention, with several retail brokers speculating that developers would be hesitant to bring big-boxes to a state that made them jump through extra hoops. But the general downturn in the economy that has chilled retail across the country is apparently the bigger concern; Badeau said no one mentioned the Informed Growth Act during any of his discussions with retailers or brokers.

He was prepared, though. He brought several copies of a local ordinance that Lewiston passed that mirrors the state law, except it allows a developer to pick his own consultant to perform the study, rather than a consultant from a list vetted by the State Planning Office. Those changes allow a developer to pick someone familiar with the municipalities to be studied and can shorten the six-month timeframe that is allowed under the state law.

Badeau was one of only three economic development officials to attend the show. He said it’s too soon to know what will ultimately come from it, but he’s optimistic.

“It was well worth my time,” he said. “A lot of retail deals come with establishing a relationship. Sometimes that comes over a period of years.”

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