YMCA announcement boosts optimism for mill’s revitalization

LEWISTON — Developer Tom Platz would like firm commitments to fill more than half of Bates Mill No. 5 by this summer in order to move ahead with a $25 million bare-bones renovation that could see life, and thousands of jobs, return to the massive 100-year-old landmark.

He’s feeling good about his chances.

Inking those lease deals would be the culmination of two years’ worth of hustle by a local group that’s worked doggedly to save the mill after the city wanted to demolish it.

“I’ve spent hundreds of hours of my life believing,” said Peter Flanders, president of Grow L+A.

The working plan, Platz said in an interview this week, is to:

* Fill more than 100,000 square feet with a new YMCA, a rehabilitation facility and health and wellness center.

* Fill 40,000 to 60,000 square feet with office space to an unnamed company that is bursting at the seams.

* Fill 20,000 square feet with a unique grocery store/”innovation center”/teaching hybrid.

* Fill 20,000 to 25,000 square feet with an “educational component” — but only if plans move ahead quickly enough. Take too long, and they’re off to somewhere else, Platz said.

From there, a host of possibilities are on tap to fill out the rest of the 352,000-square-foot space.

Among them: Beer.

It’s not yet ready to commit, but Baxter Brewing is interested.

“We’re out of space where we are,” said CEO Luke Livingston. “So we are quickly and aggressively thinking about what’s next. We’re keeping a close eye on what happens with Mill 5 and it would be amazing, logistically and for Baxter and for the community, if we were able to do something there.”

Platz estimated it would cost $60 million to $75 million to bring the 1912 mill back to a thriving center. The first $25 million would make it structurally sound with new electrical, new windows and a new roof, updating what amounts to four acres of iconic saw-tooth.

Tenants could finish the space to suit from there.

“It’s a complex project,” Platz said. “I think if we can hit 200,000 (square feet in signed leases), we can probably start.”

Big boost from the YMCA

Mill No. 5 employed 1,200 workers churning out 60,000 bedspreads a week in its heyday. The city became the unplanned owner of No. 5 and the rest of the Bates Mill buildings in 1992 when it took the complex for back taxes. The last loom stopped in 2000, continuing a decades-long slide into disrepair.

Platz and Grow L+A, founded by architect Gabrielle Russell, won a reprieve for Mill No. 5 in 2013.

An early idea to create a server farm on one floor and use the heat to grow produce on the second floor is out after it didn’t find any takers, Flanders said, but those original sustainable, healthy principals held steady.

Steven Wallace, CEO of the YMCA, this week unveiled his tentative plan to locate a new Y in Mill No. 5 with a large aquatics center, child care and room for twice as many members. He started talking to the group last July.

While Grow L+A had been looking for partners, “I don’t know that we ever dreamt in the first days it would be the local YMCA,” Flanders said.

Wallace said he liked the idea of being part of the envisioned mix with people coming to Mill No. 5 to work out, take a cooking class, head to the office or grab groceries.

“People are going to want to move to a community where all those assets are there,” he said. “We’re hoping our 150th year (in 2018), we can be in the new place.”

A year ago, a feasibility study found the mill could support a 20,000-square-foot grocery store, according to Mark Sprackland, founder and executive director of the Maine-based Independent Retailers Shared Services Cooperative.

He’s been trying to pull that together since.

It wouldn’t be an existing chain. Sprackland envisions trying something new, either foundation- or worker- and community-owned, with national and local brands offering “fresh, affordable food.” In addition to that, there would be an “innovation center,” a kitchen for entrepreneurs and a teaching component. Want to learn how to be a meat cutter? Or open your own grocery store? Come on down.

He plans to pitch the unnamed, $4 million project — about the size of two Dollar Stores — to the city council next month.

“Today people will travel a half-hour to go to Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods, so we’re hoping that when consumers look at what we’re about and what we’re trying to accomplish, they’ll support us and we’ll be a destination for unique products,” Sprackland said.

Flanders said there’s still an ongoing study to create a food hub at the mill — maybe something that helps local farmers get products to market, or add value to crops, or simply offer classes.

Russell first sat down with Daniel Wallace, program developer for sustainable agriculture and food systems with CEI, two and a half years ago with the hope of getting his community development group involved. CEI has offered technical assistance and advice. Wallace is excited by what he’s seen come together.

“To bring food access to the downtown area, to bring healthy living to the downtown area, this has transformational components to it,” Wallace said.

$2 million in annual property taxes

Early plans call for the YMCA, rehab and health and wellness center to be on the second floor of the mill, along with an unnamed business’s office space. The grocery store would be on the first floor along with the educational component and plenty of available space. A number of businesses have expressed interest in 5,000- to 10,000-square-foot spots, Platz said.

Even with years of leaks, no heat and increasingly broken and boarded windows, Platz said a report five months ago found just one of the 199 support columns in need of structural repair, though a number do need concrete patches.

“The idea that the building is decrepit and falling down — it’s not falling down,” Platz said. “Definitely, there’s lots of repairs to be done.”

Once commitments are inked and the designs firm up, he said, he’ll pursue historic tax credits for the project and work with the National Park Service because the building is on its National Register of Historic Places. 

Platz said he’d like the city to fund the public infrastructure involved — additional parking at the Lincoln Street garage, utilities and footbridges connecting the mill’s second story to Canal Street and the parking garage.

He estimated the finished project would pay at least $2 million in annual property taxes to the city and that thousands of people would work in the building.

Lewiston City Administrator Ed Barrett, an advocate in the past of seeing the building come down, said he’s reviewed the new plans and so far, they are plausible.

“Quite honestly, if you look at the history of Bates Mill No. 5, this is the closest we have ever been to actually seeing something real take place there,” Barrett said.

The very size of the building has always made the prospect of redeveloping it a challenge.

“I think it’s been a long process of talking to a variety of people and hoping to get a critical mass together to get the project going,” Barrett said.

Grow L+A and Platz appear to be near that critical mass, he said, but that doesn’t mean the City Council is ready to commit. Councilors are still impatient to settle the building’s fate.

“We all understand that the building has been there and vacant for a long time,” Barrett said. “There is a certain feeling on the council that we need to push this thing over the goal line. And if we can’t, let’s regroup and decide where we need to go.”

Platz, who redeveloped much of the rest of the Bates Mill complex, sees current plans as “very feasible.”

If work starts on the front of the building, it might be ready for those first tenants in just over a year, he said, while construction continues on the back.

When ground first broke on the mill in 1912, “they excavated that thing with shovels, spades and mules and they did it in 18 months,” Platz said. “That’s probably with 2,000 workers, lots of hands, but it was all by hand. It’ll take us longer to rehab it than it took them to build it and we have every bit of technology available.”

Russell, who now works at Platz Associates, said her own excitement at what’s been planned is “off the charts. I feel so fortunate to still be part of it.”

It will stay that way, Platz said.

“She’ll be over there wiring,” he said. “She’ll be very involved.”

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