Bates Mill #5 aerial

An aerial view of Bates Mill #5

LEWISTON — Steve Wallace has been fielding questions — and rumors — about Bates Mill No. 5 for a while now.

“All the time,” said Wallace, head of the Auburn-Lewiston YMCA. “A lot of people say, ‘Well, since the hospital pulled out, you guys aren’t going in there.'”

To be clear: The YMCA still plans to move into the 100-year-old, 350,000-square-foot mill building once the mill’s $70 million renovation is complete.

Also to be clear: The Y isn’t close to packing up its moving boxes yet.

“For us it’s just making sure when we … say (to donors), ‘Hey, you know, can you help with this project?’ that it’s a real project,” Wallace said. “We’re just making sure (the developer and city leaders) all have their ducks in a line and then we go forward.”

The YMCA has been waiting for a couple of years. It looks like it’ll be waiting a little longer.

A funding setback has delayed necessary cleanup at Bates Mill No. 5.

However, there is good news for the development, too.

• The University of Southern Maine may consider moving its Lewiston-Auburn campus into the mill.

• St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center is assessing its options for moving in.

• This fall, the city plans to reapply for a $200,000 federal Brownfields Cleanup Grant it lost earlier this year. The program provides grants and technical assistance to communities, states and groups to assess, safely clean up and sustainably reuse contaminated properties. Officials are also looking into other ways to pay for the cleanup work that has to be done.

In February, the Lewiston City Council extended, for the second time, Platz’s option to buy the mill, giving him and the city another year to get those ducks in a row. That second extension is half over.

Those connected to the project hope there won’t have to be a third.

“I think we’ll be OK,” said Lincoln Jeffers, Lewiston’s director of Economic and Community Development.

Demolition to development

Construction started on Bates Mill No. 5 in 1912 and finished in 1914. It was the largest building in the extensive mill complex that had started to grow in the 1800s.

For decades the downtown textile mills employed thousands of people — No. 5 was used for weaving — but during the 20th century the mills started to decline.

The city took ownership of the Bates Mill complex in 1992 after the company and its officers failed to pay $800,000 in taxes. The city began using Bates Mill No. 5 as storage in 1999.

While other Bates Mill buildings found new life in recent years, becoming home to restaurants, apartments and businesses, No. 5 remained vacant. City leaders considered demolishing it a number of times over the years, but something always stopped them.

The building’s most recent reprieve started in 2011 when a Rhode Island architectural student made Bates Mill No. 5 the center of his senior thesis. His work, along with a Sun Journal reader project and an art display of the building’s original hand-drawn plans by mill supporter and architect Gabrielle Russell, helped get the attention of local architects, developers and community members.

They formed the nonprofit group Grow L+A around the idea of saving the mill.

In 2013, Grow L+A members convinced the City Council to give them time to come up with a plan and find a developer willing to renovate the 100-year-old building. Platz would be that developer.

In 2015, the city gave Platz, who had already redeveloped other buildings in the 12-acre Bates Mill complex, an option to buy Bates Mill No. 5 for $1. He planned to spend about $70 million to renovate it into a health and wellness center for Central Maine Medical Center and the YMCA, with additional space for offices, a small grocery and other businesses.

The council extended that option for a year in February 2016 and narrowly approved extending it for another year in February 2017.

But the old mill building has lead paint, asbestos and, in some limited sections, elevated levels of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, which are industrial chemicals that can be harmful. Cleanup is considered a must for Platz to get financing.

Late last year, the city submitted a detailed application to the Environmental Protection Agency for a $200,000 Brownfields Cleanup Grant. The grant wouldn’t pay for everything that was needed, but it would be a chunk of it.

The city learned earlier this year that its application didn’t even get reviewed. One box on its application wasn’t checked as required.

“Truth be told, it was a really well-written grant,” Jeffers said. “To say I was disappointed would be an understatement because it was just a simple mistake that shouldn’t have been made. Which is just frustrating.”

The city can resubmit its application, but the EPA awards cleanup grants only once a year. The next round starts this fall, with the winners expected to be announced next year — if there’s funding for it in the federal budget.

“Things have been a little unsettled with (President Donald) Trump,” Jeffers said. “I remember when he first came in, I think we’d already applied, but the Brownfields grants were among the things on that draft budget he put out very early in his tenure … to get rid of Brownfields stuff.”

However, Jeffers said the EPA has told him “it’s full steam ahead” for now.

“Perhaps the administration is looking and seeing the value to cleaning up these old industrial sites,” he said.

Jeffers said the city is looking at other ways to fund the cleanup, including, possibly, loans. He declined to provide specifics.

“To get very detailed on that, I’d be in front of the council,” he said.

As Platz’s yearlong extension ticks by, Jeffers believes there are other options, as well. Perhaps to save time, he said, the cleanup work could be done while Platz does construction.

“Things might be able to go forward concurrently if he’s got somebody hot to go,” Jeffers said. “We’d have to work through the details and whether (Platz) is comfortable and whether lenders would be comfortable.”

Platz is open to the option.

“They have to own it while it (the cleanup) is being done, but potentially, they could own it (and) we could hold an irreversible option. You know, just so that we could work on it. They’d be owning it,” he said. “It would get very complicated, but I think we could work it out. It won’t stop the project.”

In the meantime, there’s the question of tenants.

Moving forward

Central Maine Healthcare, which owns CMMC, pulled out of the Bates Mill No. 5 project in February, citing its own financial difficulties and “uncertainty” in the health care industry. CMMC was supposed to be a key tenant.

That decision has prompted some people — including city leaders — to question the project’s future. A week after CMHC announced it was pulling out, city councilors debated whether the project could, or should, go forward.

Several years ago, City Administrator Ed Barrett called Bates Mill No. 5 “a psychic burden on the community.” It’s a feeling that’s persisted.

“How long do we sit and wait?” Councilor Tim Lajoie said during the February meeting. “Let’s move on, and let’s look at something else. I’m tired of talking about it.”

Councilors ultimately voted 4-3 during that meeting to extend Platz’s option and let the project planning continue for another year.

Grow L+A is still optimistic about the mill’s future.

“Projects of this size are complex and it is not uncommon for businesses to withdraw interest, however, new businesses have come forward. Several have also remained steadfast in their commitment,” the Grow L+A board said in a statement this week. “The project remains vibrant.”

Platz expects to split the mill’s redevelopment into two phases, with the YMCA completed in the first phase. He said he can move forward when about half the building is spoken for. He’s about 25,000 square feet short of that.

Platz said this week that he’s “discussing options with lots of potential tenants.”

“We’ve picked up some who have interest. Haven’t signed anything yet, but we’re still very positive about it. It’s still looking good,” he said.

Platz declined to name most of those who were considering moving in, but he offered a broad outline.

“We’re still talking medical,” Platz said. “We’re still talking the Y’s definitely in. We’re talking now with one retail possibility. We still have food and bakery. Looking at a couple of different people, possibilities for boutique-type groceries, more specialty groceries. Talking to one group who actually is a light manufacturer, handmade stuff.

“So we’ve got quite a bit of interest,” he said. “As well as talking to the University of Maine.”

USM spokesman Bob Stein said the three-campus university is working on its master plan over the next year. One idea under consideration: Moving Lewiston-Auburn College from the outskirts of Lewiston to downtown. Some people from USM have looked at Bates Mill No. 5 as a potential new home for the campus.

“It’s still really early,” Stein said. “Having said that, I think people are intrigued. They see the benefits of maybe a more accessible location for students and maybe also being a little more integrated into the community.”

USM owns its 85,000 square-foot-building on Westminster Street, where about 1,000 students take courses. If the university does decide to move the campus, there’s no guarantee that move would take it to Bates Mill No. 5. Stein said the university may have to go through a bidding process, which means other developers and property owners would be able to make competing offers.

“At this point it’s all very, very exploratory,” Stein said.

St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Lewiston is also a maybe.

“We are currently in the process of evaluating potential opportunities to be involved in this project,” St. Mary’s spokeswoman Hillary Dow said in an email this week.

Platz said he’s also talking with other medical practices that may be interested in moving in.

“I’d say we’re moving toward maybe getting halfway to what CMMC was going to take,” Platz said. “A lot of that is still up in the air, but I feel pretty confident we’ll be able to replace them.”

CMMC had planned to take 75,000 square feet at the mill for its sports medicine, outpatient physical and occupational therapy, and weight management programs. It had also planned a YMCA partnership, with a rehabilitation and health and wellness focus that would have, for example, had CMMC hip replacement patients using the YMCA’s exercise facilities to aid in their recovery.

That mill partnership may be gone, but the Y isn’t. It’s still planning to move into Bates Mill No. 5.

“Absolutely,” Wallace said.

The YMCA expects to move all but its child care program from Turner Street in Auburn, where it has about 55,000 square feet, to the mill, where it would have about 85,000 square feet.

Without CMMC as a partner, YMCA leaders have retooled some of their plans. However, they still envision a fitness health and wellness space, with some collaboration with whichever medical group moves into the building.

The current plan calls for, among other things, a double gym with seating for about 400 people, a warm-water pool, an eight-lane competition pool with seating for 350 to 400 people, large group exercise rooms, separate spin and yoga rooms, personal training space, a child-watch area, indoor walking track, steam room and expanded locker room space.

Wallace estimates it’ll cost the YMCA $17 million to $18 million to complete.

The Y already has about $5.8 million in potential pledges, with plans to fundraise the rest in the community and through foundations. It’s just waiting for Bates Mill No. 5 to move forward.

“As soon as they are able to do that, we’re ready to sign our lease,” Wallace said.

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“We’re just making sure (the developer and city leaders) all have their ducks in a line and then we go forward.”

— Steve Wallace, head of the Auburn-Lewiston YMCA

“I think we’ll be OK.”

— Lincoln Jeffers, Lewiston’s director of Economic and Community Development

“To say I was disappointed would an understatement because it was just a simple mistake that shouldn’t have been made. Which is just frustrating.”

— Lincoln Jeffers, Lewiston Economic and Community Development director, about the error that cost the city a $200,000 grant to help cleanup Bates Mill No. 5

“We’ve picked up some who have interest. Haven’t signed anything yet, but we’re still very positive about it. It’s still looking good.”

— Bates Mill No. 5 developer Tom Platz

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