AUBURN — A year ago today, a group of Chinese investors, in a standing-room-only signing ceremony at Auburn Hall, announced they had bought a dilapidated 100-year-old factory building in the heart of the city and planned to turn it into a $40 million, 5-star resort catering to rich Chinese patients seeking American medical treatments at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston.

They expected they’d be open for business and ready for patients in 2017.

Within weeks, workers put up chain link and wooden fences around the historic Lunn and Sweet Shoe Factory, each section of fence decorated with artistic renderings of what the finished Chinese medical tourism center would look like.

Crews converged on the building, boarding up broken windows, moving out boxes and old equipment and sealing it up.

Then, Miracle Enterprise — the Maine arm of Beijing-based Guo Tou Sheng Tong Investment Co. Ltd — bought the old Auburn Police Station next door, pasting the Miracle Enterprise emblem on it and raising a Chinese flag on the pole out front.

Then . . . nothing.

Today, the fences, the logos and the flags are the only outward evidence that anything is afoot near the intersection of Court Street and Minot Avenue. The grass at the old police station is overgrown and a plaque just inside the door still announces the building as “Auburn Police Headquarters.” There are newly broken windows on the factory building. The parking lot is crumbling. Neighbors say it’s been months since anyone’s visited the site.

But while the property looks all but abandoned, backers of the project insist that’s because most of the work is going on behind the scenes — including, mainly, hunting for investors in Beijing and Hong Kong.

They say the resort is coming.

“Good things take time,” said Miracle Enterprise Chairwoman Shi Qi through representative Tony Yick in an email to the Sun Journal this week. “And the best things come to those who wait.”

Eyesore to 5-star facility?

When the medical tourism project was announced last year, city officials, CMMC representatives and community leaders immediately hailed it as a boon to the Twin Cities.

The plan called for the Chinese investment group to spend up to $40 million to transform the old shoe factory within two years. They’d make it and the surrounding properties into a luxury, state-of-the-art health and wellness destination for wealthy Chinese retirees, soon-to-be retired seniors and financially stable middle-aged people seeking medical care at CMMC or cosmetic procedures at the resort. Investors said it was expected to serve about 5,000 people a year.

That meant Auburn would play host to thousands of rich tourists who would shop, eat, travel, play and pay for their own medical care — likely with cash.

And one of the city’s worst eyesores would get transformed in the process.

The four-story brick Lunn and Sweet Shoe Factory was built at 67 Minot Ave. in 1908, with additions in 1912 and 1914. Hundreds of Lunn and Sweet workers turned out thousands of pairs of shoes each day, including their claim to fame: Ye Olde Tyme Comfort Shoes.

The 168,000-square-foot factory thrived for decades before being first sold in the 1940s. It would eventually land in the hands of Dan Lajoie.

In recent years, the building became known simply as The Barn, the name of the retail surplus store housed there, posted on a billboard-sized sign in front of the building.

Enter the Chinese investment group.

Last summer, Lajoie sold the building and the neighboring vacant car dealership at 81 Minot Ave. to Miracle Enterprise for an undisclosed amount. Even run down and falling apart, the old factory building was valued at $1.64 million by the city. The vacant car lot was valued at $187,500.

“When we first came to Auburn, we fell in love, head over tail, with the people here, the fresh air, clean water, clean food,” Shi told the Sun Journal a year ago, through an interpreter. “It definitely works from a tourism angle and the site itself meets the needs we have. It is transformable into a medical center with a tourism angle.”

Shi and her investment group had learned about Lewiston-Auburn through Fei Miao, the brother of Bates College professor Li-ping Miao. Fei Miao, a retired builder in China, had been treated for cancer at CMMC and was pleased with both the treatment and the region. He wanted to find a way to bring Chinese patients to Maine for care and asked his sister to keep a lookout for potential buildings. Li-ping Miao has said she looked for more than a year before considering the Lunn and Sweet building.

At the time, Fei Miao said they liked the massive brick building’s history in the community, its size and its location central to the downtown and minutes from CMMC. They also liked Auburn, which offered a four-season lifestyle, a healthy environment and easy access to American medicine.

As envisioned, medical tourists could be sick and in need of high-quality treatment, such as for cancer, or they could be healthy and seeking preventive care, a comprehensive physical exam or an anti-aging procedure. Where would they come from? At that same July 31, 2015, announcement, Shi signed an agreement with another Beijing-based group, the Age Doctor International Group — described as a decade-old company focusing on “beauty customization,” preventive care and recovery from illness for more than 130,000 Chinese clients.

Age Doctor would use its contacts in China to find interested clients and send them to Auburn.

“This is exciting for those in the room, a really historic moment and something that makes it really clear to folks in Auburn and in Lewiston-Auburn that the world really is flat and we’re open for business,” Auburn Mayor Jonathan LaBonte said at the time.

Where would investors come from? The project would rely heavily on the EB-5 visa program. Under the controversial program, a foreign investor sinks $500,000 or $1 million into a project on U.S. soil. If that project saves or creates at least 10 jobs, the investor gets a green card, as does that person’s spouse and unmarried children under 21, setting them on the path to U.S. citizenship.

Miracle Enterprise figured a good number of those investors would come to the Auburn project.

As August 2015 began, the group also purchased the old 1 Minot Ave. police station from the city and workers converged on the Lunn and Sweet building. Around that same time, Shi bought another Auburn property, a house at 13 Lake St., for $345,000 — $114,000 over city-assessed value — to serve as a management residence.

Investors went back to Beijing. They returned to Maine briefly in October 2015 with a tour group of potential Chinese investors and possible clients to see the community and visit the site.

Then they went home again.

Waiting

Passersby since have seen no changes in the old factory building, the vacant car lot or the old police station — at least no changes that would lead anyone to believe a project is moving forward there.

There hasn’t been much obvious progress going on in the background, either. A year into their original two-year timeline, Miracle Enterprise has not taken out any building permits, presented plans to city officials or forwarded designs to their architect, Platz Associates in Auburn.

But Tom Platz, head of Platz Associates, isn’t worried. He said it’s common for such a large project to take a while, even if investors did originally plan on a shorter timeline.

“I think two or three years for a project this big is absolutely reasonable,” he said.

He feels it’s moving at the right pace, though he acknowledged that he doesn’t know everything going on behind the scenes.

“I have no reason to think that it’s not (on track),” Platz said. “Again, I’m not privy to the business part of this. We’re really just the architects. Like I said, I have no reason to think it’s not, but I’m not over in China, so I don’t know how the business end is going.”

While there have been no permits, plans or designs issued, Miracle Enterprise has stayed in contact with interested parties in Maine.

Peter Chalke, the outgoing CEO of Central Maine Healthcare, which runs CMMC, met with a representative as recently as two weeks ago.

“There is still strong interest in this project,” said Central Maine Healthcare spokeswoman Ericka Dodge. “Considering this is a first-of-its-kind endeavor and the magnitude of the project, things are moving along quite well.”

She said CMMC’s staff have spent time with colleagues at Massachusetts General Hospital during the past year to learn about serving an international population.

“On the hospital side, we are ready and able to begin patient care as soon as the building is complete,” she said.

Michael Chammings, Auburn’s director of economic development, said he’s spoken to Miracle Enterprise representatives five times this year, most recently in May.

Unofficially, the city will be expected to help with getting building and construction permits, visas, tax credits and relocating utilities. It may also look into expanding Goff Street through the EL-Franklin Woods — commonly known as the Snake Trail behind Edward Little High School — and connecting to Elm Street and Minot Avenue to give the medical tourism building additional access to Minot Avenue.

But nothing has been formalized yet, as the city is waiting for the Chinese investors to advance their business plan.

“Please be aware that to the best of my knowledge, the City has not committed to anything in writing besides the sale of the old police station,” Chammings wrote in an email to the Sun Journal this week. “Like any other development, we will wait until all of the needed information is provided before we make any commitments.”

LaBonte, the mayor, said the city is working with state agencies to help pay for Auburn’s share of the work, like expanding the road, when — or if — the resort happens.

“To make an old shoe factory function like a building in the middle of a city, you need streetscape and access improvements,” LaBonte said. “That has to be part of the project. So I’ve encouraged staff to engage with state and federal partners so we can minimize property tax outlay. That’s been ongoing, but it’s ultimately up to those folks to be ready to move to city approvals and building permits.”

Several months ago, Miracle Enterprise did ask the National Park Service to review the project to see whether it would qualify for historic renovation tax credits considering the old factory’s past. The Park Service said it could be eligible, according to Michael Johnson of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission. But the next steps require a project plan the Park Service can review.

When any of that happens depends on the Chinese investors.

In an email this week, Shi said there had been some restructuring — a new company, Lifespring International Holdings Limited, was formed and is now the parent company for Miracle Enterprise and her other holdings. The Lifespring group has also acquired an unnamed, publicly traded Hong Kong company, which is now responsible for finding investors for the Auburn resort.

Shi said all that change has caused some delays.

“The restructuring has definitely altered the timeline by six to twelve months,” she said.

Also taking longer than expected: finding investors to help foot a $40 million bill.

A year ago, Miracle Enterprise had expected EB-5 investors would infuse the project with cash, but the controversial EB-5 program will expire this fall. Its fate is uncertain.

Concerned about EB-5’s future, Miracle Enterprise is looking for investors elsewhere.

“Finding alternative sources of funding is important so that the entire project financials are well planned for,” Shi said. “Once the project of consolidating all the finances are in order, and it’s taken a little longer than anticipated, Miracle Enterprise will work closely with Tom Platz and Platz Associates to kick start the next phase of design, planning and renovations.”

Miracle Enterprise continues to work with the Age Doctor International Group, though Shi said Age Doctor’s referrals “haven’t panned out yet.”

“As for what our status with them is, there is also sensitive information as well,” she said. “We did announce that we are in the process of doing due diligence on Age Doctor because we announce the possibility of acquiring Age Doctor altogether.”

Shi said Miracle Enterprise is on the lookout for its first Chinese patients to be treated in Maine.

“We haven’t had any luck with a patient actually going to receive treatment yet, but we believe that the first one will be the most difficult,” Shi said. “Everything in China succeeds by word of mouth, so those first few patients and successful cases are the hardest.”

Early patients could receive treatment at CMMC and stay elsewhere before the medical tourism facility is open.

Although the project is taking longer than initially expected, those who were at the announcement a year ago say they still see its promise.

“I think it holds the greatest potential for both this project and the future for our city than many things that have occurred in the past,” said Roland Miller, Auburn’s former economic development director, who has not been involved with the project or the city since his November retirement. “So I’m really, really hopeful it moves forward.”

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