A crew from St. Laurent & Sons Excavation demolishes an apartment building Dec. 9, 2019, at Bartlett and Walnut streets in Lewiston. The building is one of three nearby properties purchased by Community Concepts in 2019 and planned for redevelopment. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal file photo Buy this Photo

LEWISTON — With little federal guidance, officials are operating under the assumption that the city’s ambitious downtown “transformation plan” will be delayed.

The 250-page plan, adopted last year by the City Council, looks to bring in a federal grant worth between $10 million and $30 million to redevelop large swaths of the Tree Streets neighborhood, one of the poorest in the state.

But, as city staff and local organizations continue work on the application this spring, the COVID-19 pandemic has quickly shifted focus elsewhere.

Many of the stakeholders were suddenly focusing on more pressing needs for residents, like rent payments and groceries in a neighborhood already struggling with poverty.

“It’s definitely impacted our work,” said Misty Parker, economic development manager in Lewiston. “As people are adjusting to the immediate crisis caused by the pandemic, a lot of our attention has really shifted to those immediate needs.”

She said the city is still working alongside various stakeholder groups to craft a final application for the implementation grant, but “at a slower pace than we were.”

The Choice Neighborhoods grant program is operated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Lewiston’s plan focuses on three major redevelopment sites, but also lays out beautification projects and a focus on safety, health and education.

Parker said the city has not received direction from HUD regarding when to expect a “notice of funding availability,” which would signal a due date for Lewiston’s grant application. Applications are usually due about 90 days after the notice is sent, she said.

Originally, the city had planned to finalize the application this spring and apply sometime this summer.

“Our assumption is, based on what’s going on nationally and within the federal government, that it will likely be delayed,” she said. “Part of the process is a lot of public participation in the development of the application and that’s just not realistic at this point.”

She said those involved are partly assuming the delay because public participation is a “staple” of the Choice Neighborhoods program.

Even if the city was successful this year in obtaining the implementation grant, it would still likely be two more years before redevelopment work could begin, Parker said. That means the pandemic could put it out another year.

Lewiston Housing, which has control of a number of downtown properties acquired by the city and nonprofit Community Concepts, is still seeking a developer to design and build the replacement sites. The proposal includes a 66-unit, mixed-use development on Pine Street, along Kennedy Park, and a 64-unit, family-oriented redevelopment along Pine and Bartlett streets.

It’s unclear how the pandemic has impacted that effort.

Parker said the properties, sitting idle, will continue to be maintained. However, beautification efforts in the neighborhood will also be delayed due to the crisis.

Amy Smith, interim manager of Healthy Neighborhoods, which has been one of the largest stakeholder groups during the planning, said Thursday that the neighborhood volunteers are instead focusing on residents’ immediate needs.

“Everyone is still super engaged and want to pull it off, but just have conflicting priorities right now,” she said. “We’re trying to make sure resident voices get heard, and reach out to find out what they need right now.”

On Wednesday, Healthy Neighborhoods announced a grant program for up to $2,500 aimed at making “community impact” in the Tree Streets neighborhood. The funding is being redirected from grant funding the organization initially received for creating beautification projects. Last year, they resulted in a pop-up garden, a mural project and more.

“We’re all kind of holding our breath and trying to deal with what’s in front of us,” she said. “We have to make sure the neighborhood doesn’t lose hope.”

Smith added that the same organizations involved in the grant process are the ones that have been “hardest hit to make sure neighborhood is taken care of.”

“It’s been hard, but also amazing to watch people mobilize in different ways to help the community,” she said.

Shawn Yardley, CEO of Community Concepts, which was responsible for purchasing many of the future redevelopment sites, said the organization is still working with stakeholders in the Tree Streets neighborhood through the Healthy Neighborhoods planning council.

He said the council held a videoconference meeting early this week regarding concepts in the implementation plan.

“This will slow things down a little bit,” he said. “But we’re continuing to meet and proceed with our planning. The enthusiasm for the project certainly hasn’t changed at all.”

Yardley said while it’s tough to judge when the process will pick back up, he believes it’s “reasonable” to expect it could be this fall.


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