U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, left, Lewiston Mayor Mark Cayer, Michelle Christian, director of the Small Business Administration’s Office of Rural Affairs, and Misty Parker, Lewiston’s economic development manager, discuss Lewiston’s economy Wednesday on Pine Street in Lewiston.

LEWISTON — Answering a 30-year-old call for the federal Small Business Administration to establish an Office of Rural Affairs, a group of U.S. representatives are backing an effort to get it going.

Back in 1990, Congress approved a measure, signed into law by President George H.W. Bush, ordering the Small Business Administration to establish a new office to “strive to achieve an equitable distribution of the financial assistance available from the administration for small business concerns located in rural areas,” and a slew of other initiatives to help rural areas.

That was apparently the last time anyone paid attention to the law until U.S. Rep. TJ Cox, a California Democrat, realized last spring that nobody ever actually created the mandated federal office.

Calling the Office of Rural Affairs “an office which has the potential of helping grow and strengthen rural America’s small businesses,” Cox began asking questions, submitted legislation to have the SBA explain what happened and got some colleagues to co-sign a letter to President Donald Trump’s administration to inquire about the possibility of jump-starting the office.

Democrat Jared Golden, Maine’s 2nd District representative, who signed Cox’s letter, said the SBA quickly responded positively and before long had put Michelle Christian in charge of getting the office up and running.

Golden said more attention to rural issues by the SBA is a matter of special importance to his district, the second most rural in the country, since it might help spur growth in areas of Maine that could use it.

On Wednesday, Golden showed Christian around his hometown of Lewiston, where he and others showed her some of the projects and plans to add more housing and bolster economic vitality. Golden also planned to take her to Rumford and to the paper mill in Madison.

Christian was particularly interested in how Lewiston was using — or not using — its designed Opportunity Zone to lure investors and businesses.

Misty Parker, Lewiston’s economic development manager, and Ed Barrett, the city administrator, told her that because former Gov. Paul LePage picked a largely residential census tract that included Bates College within its bounds for the zone, it has not done anything to help target redevelopment of the mills closer to the river.

That is the area where the city wanted the zone, they said. Mayor Mark Cayer said perhaps the government could expand the current boundaries.

After touring downtown, Christian said the zone ought to have been where the city wanted it. But, she said, perhaps Congress can change the Opportunity Zone rules to allow its development benefits to extend to contiguous census tracts. Golden said he will look into it.

Officials discussed with Christian the need to upgrade housing in Lewiston, to deal with an ongoing lead paint problem and to encourage more business growth.

“The housing stock here is amazingly poor,” said Golden, who lives within the Opportunity Zone. Barrett added, “A lot of what we have is old.”

Parker said there is a chance development of Bates Mill No. 5 will get underway this year. She was also encouraged by ideas from the new owners of the long-closed Continental Mill, though they are still a few years away.

Listening to city leaders discuss what is in the pipeline, Christian told them, “It sounds like you’re all doing what needs to be done.”

She suggested there might be investors seeking to “make a difference” with their money who might be willing to put money into Lewiston because of its diverse population and needs.

Christian said she was surprised to learn how close Lewiston is to Portland, pointing out her commute from suburban Philadelphia to her office takes much longer than the drive between the two cities.

“We believe we’re the next market” after Portland, said Cayer, who said the state’s largest city has become too expensive for many.

Told there may someday be light rail between the two cities, Christian said, “Oh, that’s a game changer,” and encouraged city leaders to pursue it.

She said she was impressed with Lewiston.

“This looks like small-town America,” Christian said.

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