LEWISTON – Driving into downtown Lewiston for his interview with Central Maine Medical Center 11 years ago, Chuck Gill almost turned his car around, tempted to write off his potential future as marketing director for the hospital.

The reason? Seedy buildings, bars, head shops.

“I thought, ‘Wow, what am I getting into?” said Gill, as he entered the south end of Lisbon Street. “That first impression compared with now is dramatically different. Then the impression was of a crumbling inner city. Now it’s a revived city.”

That transformation is owed to a $23 million development cluster, started five years ago by city staff, private business and developer Stanley Sclar, whose Franklin Property Trust still owns much of the new and rehabbed property. Today those buildings employ more than 200 people and add $1.2 million in assessed values to the tax rolls. Thursday night, the 5-year anniversary was marked with an open house at Merrill Lynch Financial Services, which just opened offices at the Business Service Center at KeyBank Plaza.

“The goal was to transform that end of town and the negative perception people had of the community,” said Lincoln Jeffers, the city’s economic development chief. “Absolutely we accomplished that goal.”

The project began when Oxford Networks, a longtime resident of Buckfield, decided to relocate its primary operation to Lisbon Street. The $1.8 million office and switching station allowed the fiber-optic communications company to centralize and modernize its operations.

“We’ve become a global company,” said Matthew Jancovic, Oxford Networks spokesman. “When we have visitors from Canada or California, it’s nice to have a great location in terms of access, and also one that is aesthetically pleasing. For us, the move has been fantastic.”

Soon after Oxford Networks made the shift, Andover College, VIP Auto and Northeast Bank announced plans to build new facilities there. Down came Nadeau’s Garage, Lincoln Street Radiator Shop, an apartment building and warehouse.

Lepage Bakeries, Public Theatre and other remaining gateway occupants gave themselves facelifts. The city built a new parking garage, spent thousands in landscaping and gave the entrance a new name: Southern Gateway. Utilities were buried, sidewalks created. The most recent project was the $2 million renovation of the former Pontiac Building into the Business Service Center. Completed in January 2007, the centralized business-resource hub is about three-quarters full.

As an incentive, the city offered a tax break to Northeast Bank, Oxford Networks and the first phase of Andover College, rebating 100 percent of their real estate taxes for 20 years. Since 2004, that amounts to about $511,000.

But since 2005, those three properties have paid $604,514 in personal property tax. VIP and the Business Service Center, which were not included in the TIF, have paid a combined $130,000 in taxes since 2005.

“When I look at the Business Service Center, I see a building with declining value that is now a new tax base,” said Jeffers.

“Can you put a number on the value of it, of the change in image? No,” said Jeffers. “But is there value in transforming the city’s image throughout the state. Absolutely.”

Jeffers said without the gateway project the city would likely not have lured hotel developer Bob Winston to town, or seen the continued growth of TD Banknorth, or the upscale dining options of a Fish Bones or Fuel.

“There’s so much more vitality now,” he said. “If we had continued to ignore it, it would have been anchor around the community’s neck.”

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.