LEWISTON – A City Council decision to prohibit more than 30 types of businesses from the downtown is irking some real estate agents who see the 90-day ban as unwelcome and unnecessary.

“Why would they want to chase out business, especially in tough economic times?” asked Tripp Corson, a broker with NAI/The Dunham Group. “This makes no sense to me.”

Corson had a prospective client for a 6,000-square-foot warehouse at 75 Lincoln St. But the moratorium passed by the City Council Tuesday prohibits that use in the downtown district that runs from Bleachery Hill to Central Maine Medical Center, and from Kennedy Park to the Androscoggin River.

“I’m all for a more vital downtown, but this is taking value away from your property,” Corson said. “It’s like having a beautiful house lot and being told you can’t build a house on it. I think this is very short-sighted.”

The moratorium applies to all existing buildings within the district, as well as any new construction, expansions or relocations. City councilors endorsed the moratorium to give themselves some breathing room while they, city staff and Planning Board members focus on a downtown development plan. The issue came to a head this summer over potential new uses for the mill building at the corner of Canal and Main streets and the vacant lot on Lisbon Street created by a 2006 fire.

The exclusions are broad – so broad that planning chief Gil Arsenault said he was surprised there was little reaction or opposition from the public.

“These are pretty far-ranging,” he said of the banned uses. “It does add another layer or barrier to development in the short term. But I do think the City Council was clear in saying that the city is still open for business, that someone with a good proposal can bring it to us and we won’t let it go by the wayside.”

Under the moratorium, several newcomers to the downtown would have either been excluded or would have needed an exception to open for business. Among them are Innovex Technologies, a light industrial tenant that moved into the Hill Mill a month ago that makes building control systems, and Western Maine Community Action Health Services, which moved its medical clinic and offices from downtown Auburn to Lisbon Street this summer.

“The fundamentals (of the moratorium) make sense to me because there is no clear vision for the downtown,” said Kevin Fletcher, a broker with Coldwell Banker/Millett Realty who recently brokered a deal for a new day-care center on Canal Street. “But as a businessperson, I’m fearful that the city couldn’t come up with a clear vision in the last three years, so I’m not optimistic it will happen in three months.”

He said he feels for property managers like Bob Gladu, who owns the Pepperell Mill, which is home to several light industrial tenants and has available space.

“If I were Bob Gladu, and I’ve been paying my taxes and I had a chance to bring in a new business and I couldn’t, I’d be angry,” Fletcher said.

Brad Knowles, a broker with Keller Williams Mid Maine Realty, said the moratorium prolongs what is already a waiting game for anyone interested in acquiring property. Although the 90-day timeline isn’t extensive, he worries that it could be extended – state law caps municipal moratoriums at one year – and that it will discourage potential clients.

“Waiting is what is hurting our economy right now,” he said of the downturn in investment activity. Currently he has an offer on a property on Lincoln Street. “Depending on what the proposed use is, this could put the kibosh on the deal.”

Steve Morgan said he sees the issue from both sides, as chairman of the Planning Board and as a real estate broker with 20 years in the business.

“I like to think I’m taking a balanced approach,” said Morgan, a broker with Keller Williams. “Three months won’t make or break anyone in this industry. The city doesn’t want to stop development, but to proceed with caution. If someone approached us with a great idea, we could be back in a meeting (to consider an exception) within 48 hours.”


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