Most of Lewiston’s new strategic plan advocates vanilla “best practices” that are desirable for any American city. One of the plan’s seven proposals, however, could radically transform this community by redeveloping “Riverfront Island” into a “vibrant, multi-faceted area with accessibility to housing, commerce, arts, culture, recreation and the river.”

Riverfront Island, fringed by the canals and east bank of the Androscoggin River, is the most underutilized part of Lewiston’s downtown, comprising both its historic core and the potential platform for its renaissance.

To grasp why it is so important, consider the economic upheaval that first put Lewiston on the map and the changes urban America as a whole is now experiencing.

At its birth, this country was rural and thinly populated, with most of its 5 million inhabitants clustered along the Atlantic coast. The majority of Americans lived and worked on farms and the biggest city, New York, had only 33,000 people. Domestic industry was limited, since until the Revolutionary War, Great Britain encouraged its colonies to import English goods.

In the early 1800s, New England developed indigenous industry by copying technology from Britain, channeling rivers like the Connecticut, Blackstone, Merrimack and Saco into canals to power waterwheels and turbines, then attracting laborers from farms and abroad to work in huge red-brick mills erected along the canals.

This was the Industrial Revolution, which soon made America the world’s pre-eminent economy.

Chief products of the early Industrial Revolution were textiles made from woven cotton. Today, automated spinning and weaving of cotton products seems commonplace. In the early 19th century, it was cutting edge, akin to robotics, biotechnology and nanotechnology.

Large planned industrial cities were established in Lowell and Lawrence, Mass., Manchester, N.H. and other locations, devoted almost entirely to textiles.

Starting in the late 1840s, a group of Massachusetts investors, organized by Benjamin Bates (whose name graces Bates Mill, Bates College and Bates Street), raised capital to build such a city in Lewiston. Bates and his partners bought water rights on the Androscoggin, dug canals, built mills and mill housing and purchased machinery to make textiles on a massive scale.

Thousands of laborers from Maine farms, Ireland and Quebec came to work in the mills. As a result, Lewiston’s population soared from fewer than 1,000 in 1800, to almost 24,000 in 1900 to nearly 41,000 in 1950.

Textiles remained Lewiston’s largest employer for over a century. In the 1960s and 1970s, however, it began to contract as a result of Southern and foreign competition.

By the 1990s, textiles were almost moribund, leaving millions of square feet of mills empty and decaying, like skeletons in an elephant graveyard. Finding ways to re-use these historically significant and architecturally impressive buildings has been a decade-long challenge.

One success has been the partial Bates Mill conversions to offices for TD Bank. However, the Libbey Mill, vacant from the 1980s, was demolished. Bates Mill #5 has been empty since 2001. The canals are no longer economically feasible for power generation and may be candidates for closure.

Riverfront Island contains what remains of the working heart of Bates’ original planned city. A good deal of it is owned by the city, including the green space of Simard-Payne Memorial (formerly Railroad) Park. The question is: what should be done with it?

The plan’s suggestions include engaging an architectural team, including a landscape architect, to create a design that integrates the canals into redevelopment, builds a riverwalk and makes the “island” a hub of biking and hiking trails. It also calls for determining the best future use of Mill No. 5, creating advocates for cultural amenities such as a museum, band shell and public performance space, and reserves lots for suitable restaurant, residential and commercial spaces.

These steps are so critical because they can be catalysts for the city’s economic rebirth.

Urban areas throughout the country are suffering from the recession, but those dependent upon traditional industries are on life support. Since a shrinking percentage of the American labor force (currently about 10 percent) works in manufacturing, competition has hit the low-tech sector particularly hard and even economic recovery won’t regain jobs. Cities most likely to rebound are the ones tied to the “creative economy.”

From Portland, Maine. to Portland, Ore., progressive cities are using music, theater, the arts, cultural attractions, museums, historic preservation and attractive green spaces to create the “sizzle in the steak.” They are magnets that draw not only tourists, but higher-income and better-educated people to live, work and play. This is the kind of creative population that can help cities not only survive but thrive by continually reinventing the business environment.

Benjamin Bates changed Lewiston from a rural hamlet to a great industrial city. Riverfront Island, the physical remnants of Bates’ great enterprise, can become the force behind a new local renaissance in the era of the creative economy.

Elliott L. Epstein, a local attorney, is founder and board president of Museum L-A and an adjunct history instructor at Central Maine Community College. He can be reached at [email protected]

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.