LEWISTON — When Gil Arsenault was hired by the city more than 30 years ago, personal computers were not yet uniformly used in city government, downtown streets were lined with more apartment buildings and planning and code enforcement were part of a larger development office at City Hall.

Since becoming director of code enforcement in 1984, Arsenault has overseen a transition in Lewiston. He has been tasked with keeping up with the city’s aging housing stock, while also looking to the future with long-term planning efforts — all with limited staffing.

Arsenault, 64, will retire May 30 after 34 years on the job. He said Thursday he will miss the people, but not having to play the role of “bad cop” when issuing warnings or code violation notices.

“I’m really, really going to miss the staff — they are second to none,” he said. “I’m not going to miss the conflict. There’s a fair amount of friction in the position.”

Last year, he outlined the steps the city has been taking to enforce building and safety codes in Lewiston. The efforts often end up in fines, court appearances or demolitions.

Staff members working for Arsenault credit him with the continued effort to improve the city’s aging housing stock, which has included a large number of demolitions, but also with overseeing some long-term planning efforts.

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City Administrator Ed Barrett said Wednesday that among the “largest continuing challenges” Arsenault and his department have faced is the age and condition of multifamily housing in Lewiston.

Over the past 20 years, he said, Lewiston has seen repeated instances of housing bubbles that subsequently burst, leading to “significant abandonment and the need to condemn and demolish.”

“As you know, we’ve just recently come off one such period,” Barrett said. “Gil and his department have been at the forefront of those efforts.”

Over the past five years, more than 70 buildings in Lewiston have been condemned, with roughly half eventually demolished. Arsenault said in the 1990s, there was a similar stretch when dozens of buildings came down because of unsafe conditions and a financial shift, “when dozens of people walked away from their properties.”

Asked to describe the biggest difference between now and when he was hired, he said the housing stock.

“When you drove through the downtown neighborhoods, you didn’t see the vacant lots that you see today,” he said.

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But through the years, as ownership moved from owner-occupied to investor owners, housing advocates placed an even larger emphasis on safety.

Neighborhood groups at times criticized the city’s efforts. In recent years, the prevalence of lead paint in downtown buildings has also been combated, with Lewiston now receiving annual grants.

“I think we’ve been incredibly responsive to the public,” Arsenault said, referring to the challenges downtown and subsequent code amendments that have addressed some issues.

As for enforcement, he said, “I don’t believe there’s anybody in the state anywhere near as aggressive as we are when it comes to enforcement.”

Arsenault grew up in Canton, but has lived in Sumner for many years. After graduating from The University of Maine, he began working for the Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments, which was then a regional planning commission. Before coming to Lewiston, he worked as a town planner for Mexico.

This summer, Arsenault said he will begin some projects that are long overdue at his home in Sumner, while also spending more time with family and doing a bit more traveling.

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As Arsenault prepares to retire, the department will be tested further by losing two more essential staff members.

Gary Campbell, a building inspector who has been with the city almost as long as Arsenault, worked his last day Wednesday.

Code Enforcement Officer Tom Maynard will step into Campbell’s role, but enforcement officer Sue Reny is also leaving in April.

Arsenault said he gave his notice to Barrett in December to give the city plenty of time to fill the role. The city will soon advertise the two code enforcement officer positions. Arsenault said he is confident that any momentum the department is seeing now will continue under a new director.

On Tuesday, the city issued a job posting for Arsenault’s position. A summary of the role describes it as leading a department of seven with an annual budget of $460,000.

David Hediger, city planner and deputy director of the department, declined to comment on whether plans to apply for the position. He did say that Arsenault’s departure, along with the other staff, is creating “big shoes to fill.”

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“The future will be interesting here for us,” he said.

Asked how Arsenault will be remembered, Barrett said he believes it will be tied to the new “Legacy Lewiston” comprehensive plan that was approved by the City Council last year. The plan has won awards for innovation and the amount of resident involvement in its development.

“This later document will help us chart a course over the next 20 to 30 years and is certainly an innovative approach to comprehensive planning,” Barrett said.

“I doubt that 20 years from now, we’ll be talking about the properties torn down during Gil’s tenure. I don’t doubt that these plans and what results from them will still be topical in 2037.”

Code Enforcement Officer Nick Richard, a more recent hire in Lewiston, said he has known Arsenault through code enforcement training when he worked for Mechanic Falls.

For the past 18 months, Richard said, Arsenault has been “a mentor to me” and “someone who I aspire to someday be.”

“The institutional knowledge that he has with respect to development within the city of Lewiston is second to none,” Richard said. “He will be greatly missed.”

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Gil Arsenault, director of planning and code enforcement for the city of Lewiston, addresses a public meeting in 2013. He has announced he will retire at the end of May. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)


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