City officials stand on the far side of the new Beech Street bridge following a ribbon-cutting ceremony Thursday. The bridge is seen as the first step toward more improvements to Simard-Payne Memorial Park, a new Museum L-A and the canals. Staff photo by Andrew Rice

LEWISTON — City officials held a ribbon-cutting Thursday at the new Beech Street bridge, which provides the only vehicle access over the canal to Simard-Payne Memorial Park from Oxford Street. It may not look like much, but to the city it marks the beginning of big plans for the city’s riverfront.

According to city staff, those plans include the start of work to dress up the canal system, and expand the riverwalk and park. But perhaps the biggest beneficiary for now is Museum L-A, which is designing its new home at the former Camden Yarns Mill.

The previous bridge, just a single lane, was so dilapidated that larger trucks and emergency vehicles could not access it.

During the ceremony Thursday, Rachel Desgrosseilliers, executive director of Museum L-A, said the new bridge was completed just in time to save the museum’s new location from a fire that broke out in June. If it had happened just a month earlier, the damage could have been catastrophic.

She said she’s hoping that Museum L-A’s presence there can inspire more activity as the city continues to implement its Riverfront Island Master Plan in incremental steps.

“It is opening so many possibilities for our future, and the future growth of Lewiston,” she said of the bridge.

She added that the new two-lane bridge will be key for the museum as they expect to host school buses, tour buses and other vehicles, which wouldn’t have been possible before. The bridge over the canal is also the only way vehicles access some of the city’s largest events such as the Great Falls Balloon Festival and Dempsey Challenge.

“It may not seem like much, but I think it represents much, much more,” said Doug Greene, Lewiston’s city planner.

He said the city’s work to implement the Riverfront Island Master Plan, albeit slowly, is starting to show. He said it’s beginning to result in private investment like the recent purchase of the Continental Mill, and will lead to further improvements to the park.

The new span is a prefabricated truss bridge designed to match the former train trestle on the other side of the park, as recommended by the Historic Preservation Review Board.

The construction bids came back higher than the city’s initial $730,000 budget for the project. According to City Administrator Ed Barrett, the final cost was roughly $779,000.

City Councilor Alicia Rea told the audience Thursday, which included city staff, elected officials and project engineers, “It is more than just a physical bridge, but a vital connection within this evolving area of Lewiston.”

When the city first started looking into replacing the bridge, there was confusion over who actually owned it. Desgrosseilliers said no one wanted to claim they owned the bridge, and meanwhile, the city could not find funding for the project. Instead, work was done on a few occasions to shore up the supports underneath.

Finally in 2017, funding was allocated for the bridge.

Since then, the city has taken over ownership of the canal system, which Public Works Director Dale Doughty said Thursday will be the next focus of city staff. The City Council recently approved initial funding for staff to begin clearing brush and debris from the canals, starting with the cross canal parallel to the bridge.

Doughty said the work this year will include removing all vegetation and chain-link fencing that is a barrier to water views. Some of the funding will go toward new “aesthetic” fencing or wooden guardrails.

“You’ll be able to see from Oxford Street into the park, and you’ll really be able to connect more with the water,” he said.

The work could also include a ramp for maintenance access, which he said could double as access for recreation in the future “as the community builds its vision.”

As the city acquired the canal system, it restarted public calls to open the canals to recreation, such as  kayaking and ice skating.

“This isn’t the end game, it’s really just to give you a sample so all of you and the rest of the city can say, ‘Here’s what the canal should be,'” he said.

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This “before” photo of the Beech Street bridge shows the former single-lane bridge. Due to its poor condition, large vehicles and emergency vehicles could not cross it. (Sun Journal file photo)

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