Wednesday’s fire has not stopped the developer who wants to build a hotel at the Libbey and Cowan mills site.
“The good news is that Bob (Winston) didn’t slam the door. The fire was not the kiss of death” to plans to build the hotel, acting City Administrator Phil Nadeau said Thursday.
Winston wants to build a Marriott Courtyard hotel on the Androscoggin River next to the falls where both the Libbey and Cowan mills were located.
In addition to building a hotel, Winston was interested in renovating the Cowan Mill and converting it to meeting spaces, a restaurant and also some hotel rooms on the upper floors. All of which would have enhanced the adjacent hotel.
“With the fire, that is no longer a possibility,” said Lincoln Jeffers, assistant to the city administrator.
About 90 days ago, Cowan Mill owner Martin Finley Sr. placed the 1850 mill building for sale, listing it with John Danforth of Keller Williams Realty Mid Maine. The sale price was $399,000, Danforth said. The building lost in the fire Wednesday was not insured, said Julie Adair Finley, Martin Finley’s daughter.
Before Wednesday’s fire, Winston was talking to Finley about buying and renovating the Cowan Mill. But the two had no written, legal agreement, Jeffers said. Finley wanted to sell the property quickly, and didn’t want to wait for Winston. With the rough economy Winston hadn’t secured financing.
While it’s sad to lose a piece of history, the fire shouldn’t slow economic development, officials said.
Losing the mill “changes the landscape,” Jeffers said. “That building sat on that site for 160 years. That is the view people had.” You can’t recreate that piece of history. But when it comes to redeveloping it, the site was rough, the building was disintegrating. Renovation would have been expensive, Jeffers said.
With the building destroyed, the site will be clean, building there could be easier, Jeffers said. And the land “is fabulous,” he said. “It’s bordering the river. There is great opportunity there, but it would take the right project.”
Paul Badeau, marketing director for the Lewiston Auburn Economic Growth Council, agreed.
The Libbey Mill burnt down several years ago, the Cowan had been abandoned. On Thursday a charred skeleton of what it was, it still is not the main focal point when entering Lewiston from the Longley Bridge, Badeau said.
If a fire took out the huge Bates Mill No. 5 — and the Mill No. 5’s roof did catch on fire for a few minutes Wednesday — that would have been a huge eyesore, Badeau said. “The Cowan Mill is tucked away. It’s not as visible.”
The site of the Cowan and Libbey mills has a lot of development potential, “given the proximity to the falls,” Badeau said. “The cost of clean up has to be factored in. It remains to be seen whether this will allow someone to raze whatever debris is left and start new.”
Badeau and other staff members watched Wednesday’s fire from their office window on Lisbon Street. “We could see the flames towering up. Then we saw Mill No. 5 catch fire.”
Everyone was worried about the mammoth mill becoming fully engulfed, and Espo’s Trattoria, the restaurant located between the two burning mills.
So was Nicole Esposito, whose family owns the restaurant. The Cowan Mill fire was scary enough. But fears intensified when the wind carried burning debris across the street to the roof of Mill No. 5.
“I was leaning on that building when it caught on fire!” she said. “It is a miracle that debris wasn’t on my roof. It is a miracle that we are not burned down. That building wasn’t even 50 feet away from me.”
Firefighters quickly put out the fire and hosed down the Bates mill roof top and others nearby.
Espo’s re-opened for lunch Thursday. At noon customers were seated at tables like any other day. However, the restaurant’s deck was closed due to charred debris on the deck. Holes from falling, burning debris were visible in the awning.
The destruction of the Cowan Mill could mean it will cost less to develop the hotel, Esposito predicted. “We’re hoping construction will get underway sooner than later.”
She called on the city to move swiftly to demolish the abandoned Mill No. 5. “It’s an absolute liability,” Esposito said. “If that building had gone up, we would have been burning for days. I’d be closed for weeks. Let’s get going. Let’s develop this.”
City official Jeffers said Mill No. 5 should be demolished this or next year.
The Lewiston City Council has put out a request for proposals for demolition. He expects bids soon. “The ball’s already rolling.”
When you have such a huge building with 350,000 square feet, “there are all sorts of issues,” Jeffers said. Inside the mill are large, heavy duty brass switches and turbines — it “looks like a scene from ‘Back to the Future,'” he said.
There are also structural issues regarding how connected the building is to the canal walls and the 100-year-old sewer system below.
The building must be taken down safely. Said Jeffers, “It’s a very complicated building.”
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