In the late 1700 and early 1800s, settlers in the vicinity of Lewiston Falls recognized an unique opportunity where the Androscoggin River had one of its greatest drops, second only to Rumford Falls.

It was a different world then, of course. New England was a major economic engine for the United States, as the Industrial Revolution had investors seeking suitable locations to build new planned cities around waterways.

The landscape around Lewiston Falls, the original name for what most now call Great Falls, was well positioned for industrial city planners. There was the drop in the river, yes, but there was much more. A bend in the river that provided an ideal alignment for a canal, thus extending access to that drop in the river. The surrounding landscape was relatively undeveloped, at that point dominated by rural, agricultural land.

And so the investors came and, with their ability to secure control of most of the real estate in the area, created that master plan. After all, it is easier to control the development plan when you control the land to be developed.

The plan went beyond where and how to construct mills powered by the Androscoggin. There was a recognized a need for commercial and entertainment districts, for residential districts meeting the needs of both blue collar and white collar workers.

The goal of filling those commercial and residential districts could only be successful if the primary vision was successful; filling the area between the canal network and the river with mills. And the plan was to move, block by block, down the canal building new facilities and cross canals until reaching the area now anchored by the Androscoggin Mill.

In the parochial mindset of many current public officials in Lewiston and Auburn, you might easily gloss over that the growth plan for this area in the 19th-century encompassed both cities, and it was the same private firm that controlled real estate on both sides of the river.

Fast forward to today and the stark reality of more open land at the core of Lewiston-Auburn with the demolition of the Libbey Mill and the fire earlier this month at the Cowan Mill.

Though it was politically convenient to brush away a Joint Downtown Master Plan for Lewiston and Auburn nearly a year ago, the community can no longer afford to live under the assumption that a vibrant downtown can have its rebirth without coordination and cooperation in the area now coined by Lewiston as the “Riverfront Island District.”

It is a tough pill to swallow for one side of the river to advocate or encourage the development of new projects on the other. Whether it is a lack of leadership or lack of vision that led to this mindset from those in power is no longer worth debating.

I propose taking the view of this community’s original planners. Let’s start with building a vibrant Riverfront Island District and let Lewiston and Auburn benefit from the ripple effect of that.

How to do it?

By looking closely at a tax map for this district, beyond the obvious observation that a lot of land is vacant, it should be noted that much of the land, especially around Island Point (former Cowan and Libbey Mill sites), is under public ownership.

That means, rather than attempting to piece together lots of small urban lots, the city of Lewiston is in a position to push for a city block by city block redevelopment on the scale of the original industrial development, starting with Island Point as a clean slate.

Before moving to spent multiple millions of dollars demolishing Bates Mill No. 5 and creating another open crater in the landscape, Lewiston must push to secure developers for Island Point first.

Rather than create an elaborate “master plan” for the Riverfront Island District, through an onerous public process, let the private sector propose a layout with limited guidelines but under the goal of building a new urban landscape.

Why would a developer make a proposal?

Beyond the obvious site benefits, at the base of Lewiston Falls, the city of Lewiston should offer a “credit enhancement” arrangement, similar to the one Auburn offered to mall owner George Schott, to return property taxes paid by the developer back to them to help finance a project.

Would a site, at the base of Lewiston Falls, where a developer could “avoid” property taxes for a 30 year period yield a major project? The community can’t afford not to try.

 Jonathan LaBonte, of New Auburn, is a columnist for the Sun Journal and an Androscoggin County Commissioner. E-mail: [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.