A view of the Bates Mill Complex on Wednesday evening, which has seen $4.7 million in renovations in the past 12 months, making it among the largest private investments in Lewiston-Auburn in fiscal year 2020. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

A new massive dairy barn, multimillion-dollar updates at the Bates Mill Complex, a new high school for special education students, new apartment buildings and a new urgent care facility were among the $33 million in new commercial projects on both sides of the river in the Twin Cities in the past 12 months.

Lewiston ended fiscal year 2020 with $18 million in projects, Auburn with $15.4 million, according to building permit details from both cities.

Despite challenges ahead with the pandemic, Twin Cities officials, who weigh in below, say they see room for optimism — and growth — in the next year.

The single largest developments here in the past 12 months were government-funded: A new $3.6 million firehouse substation build for North Temple Street in Lewiston and $2.3 million Maine National Guard renovation and addition on Mount Apatite Road for Auburn.

Developer Tom Platz oversaw two major renovations, a $2.8 million update to the fourth floor of Bates Mill No. 1 for Grand Rounds and $1.9 million updating the fifth floor of Bates Mill No. 2 for Northeast Bank.

“So far none of these projects have been affected by COVID,” Platz said this week. “We have had very few projects affected by COVID so far. It will be interesting to see where it all lands. As companies who historically put a lot of workers in a very crowded area begin to space them out, we will see if they actually need more physical space built. I don’t know the answer to this one, but will wait for the market to determine its direction.”

Paving and landscaping were some of the finishing touches going on Thursday morning, at the new high school built by John F. Murphy Homes for Margaret Murphy Centers for Children. The project tops the list of largest private-sector commercial projects in Lewiston-Auburn for fiscal year 2020 at $3,250,000. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

On Thursday, Todd Goodwin walked through the new $3.2 million Margaret Murphy Centers for Children high school on Memorial Avenue in Lewiston.

“We are thrilled with the new building and look forward to beginning to serve students on Monday,” said Goodwin, CEO of John F. Murphy Homes. “Our new school will provide a state-of-the-art, safe and nurturing space students to explore, learn and grow.”

Other Lewiston projects in the past year included renovating warehouse space and creating a marijuana extraction lab on Commercial Street.

Auburn saw three projects for $1.5 million at the Mystique Way Cannabis Park, two new 12-unit apartment buildings that are part of a three-building plan and an $850,000 makeover for the Center Street Shaw’s expected to wrap in late August.

The greenhouses on Mystique Way in Auburn, shown in March, comprise some of the major private sector construction projects in Auburn during fiscal year 2020. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal file photo Buy this Photo

“Some of the areas that will be enhanced are our offerings in fresh cut produce, organic produce and in our deli/food service departments, just to name a few,” spokeswoman Dawn Myers said.

The commercial development totals for the past year were down markedly from fiscal year 2019 for both cities, when Lewiston saw more than $60 million in new development and Auburn $36 million. A new Bates College science center represented $39 million of that in Lewiston, while Auburn recorded several new housing developments.

‘EXCITING ANNOUNCEMENTS’ TO COME?

The Sun Journal asked Lincoln Jeffers, Lewiston’s director of economic and community development, and Eric Cousens, Auburn’s deputy director of economic and community development, for takeaways in their respective cities and what they see ahead.

How would you describe fiscal year 2020? Any trends?

Jeffers: I have been pleasantly surprised that despite the impacts and uncertainty brought about by COVID -19, development interest and activity remains strong. Over the last several months, the Planning Board has approved a total of $13 million in solar projects with other solar projects inquiring. Bates Mill saw the $2.8 million relocation of Grand Rounds from the top floor of Mill No. 6 into Mill No. 1, expanding their footprint. Northeast Bank is relocating from the Southern Gateway into a $2 million renovation in Mill No. 2.

Jules Patry is moving forward with renovating 199 Lisbon St. into 12 market-rate apartments with commercial space at street level. Three new market-rate apartments were developed on the upper two floors of the historic 223 Lisbon St. They rented quickly at strong rents. The Planning Board approved a $3.7 million, 33,000-square-foot expansion for Valley Beverage — construction is expected to start this season. Saxon Partners received approval to build 245-units, market-rate apartments at the former Pineland Lumber site at an estimated cost of $30 million. Construction on Saxon is not expected to start until at least 2021. Avesta Housing is moving forward with securing financing for the development of 35 units of workforce/mixed income housing at Blake and Pine streets.

Renewable power continues to gain steam. In addition to the solar projects previously noted, the city has invested significant focus and attention in support of the New England Clean Energy Connect project. If built, $250 million will be spent in Lewiston with the siting of the DC/AC convertor station in the city. In working with the city assessor, the converter station and other grid upgrades in Lewiston will translate into at least $6 million in new annual tax revenue.

Hydroelectric power is a cornerstone of a balanced renewable power strategy. Unlike wind and solar, it runs 24/7, 365 days a year. Once the electricity is converted from DC to AC in Lewiston, it enters the New England energy grid, benefiting all of ISO New England with clean renewable power, displacing fossil fuel generators that are more expensive and foul our air. These solar and transmission projects are a glimpse of what is to come.

Cousens: Fiscal year 2020 was a strong year for commercial and residential development in Auburn. Over the whole year, permit numbers and value were slightly down from last year’s record numbers, but February 2020 to June 2020 was extremely strong and the Planning Board and site plan approvals during that period are setting us up for a great start to fiscal year 2021 with $55.8 million in new structures approved, totaling 269,000 square feet of new floor area and two solar projects totaling $34 million in investment and 80 acres of new panels — these numbers are incredible.

We expect most of those projects and some others in discussion to make it to the building permit and construction stages during the next six months to add to the 288,000 square feet that we issued building permits for between February and June 2020.

Residential sales are exceeding assessed value in many cases and new home construction is strong — more on this Monday night as we begin a new effort with the City Council to ensure there is adequate land available for all types of new housing.

Any industries we aren’t seeing locally now that you feel would be good fits or industries here poised for growth?

Jeffers: Industries poised for growth: plastics, medical, manufacturing, front line and back office support services.

Cousens: Solar energy is a new industry emerging in Auburn with 80 acres of panels recently approved at a total cost of $34 million.

Auburn is fortunate to have large and small businesses across varied industries. Our council and the Planning Board have recently put policies in place that will support downtown development and agriculture/food production in a stronger way than we have in the past. New downtown pedestrian improvements, New Auburn Village Center and 186 Main St. riverfront development sites in addition to $1 million in development incentives will provide staff with the resources to attract investment in these key areas and cornerstone downtown properties. There are projects currently in discussion that we hope will become exciting downtown announcements in fiscal year 2021.

On the agriculture and food production side, we have recently formed an Agriculture Committee to work on policy changes, support programs and branding of local food. There seems to be an increased interest in local foods and local processing capacity and we hope to find ways to add value, processing capability and storage so local farmers can increase the value of their crops and grow their business. We are working with many local partners to make sure we can access a more regional market with products produced in Auburn.

What have you seen the pandemic do to development?

Jeffers: Local business are committed, creative and resilient. Not all are thriving, but they are working hard to adapt and survive. The pandemic has hit the entire state’s hospitality and tourism sectors very hard. Maine is among the safest places to live in the country, but it has exacted a heavy toll on many of these businesses.

Cousens: Bad news first: Restaurants, hospitality and personal services like salons and gyms have had a very difficult six months. They need our business, support and cooperation more than ever as they try to figure out how to operate and stay open with new limitations and restrictions to protect public health. Even with the city’s emergency loan and federal assistance, we have lost a couple in Auburn, but there is strong interest in the spaces that they occupied and we are working with some companies that would be great additions to Auburn’s food choices. I’m hoping we have some leases signed and announcements soon for the former Krispy Kreme, Ruby Tuesday’s and Tim Hortons spaces.

The good news is that there were a lot of success stories and time to think about next steps in growing existing businesses during the pandemic. Landscaping and nursery businesses, home improvement, hardscaping and manufacturing businesses are among the success stories. The PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loans lowered labor costs for many businesses and kept employees on the job during the pandemic. Product demand increased as people stayed home and improved their yards and homes instead of vacations or traveling. Some, like FutureGuard saw incredible increases in demand as their competitors were closed or forced to limit production due to restrictions in their home states. In FutureGuard’s case, their competitors’ customers tried FutureGuard’s products and preferred them, resulting in long-term sales contracts and increased market share. They were not alone and we are working with a few other manufacturers acquiring property and planning for major expansions soon.

Thoughts on the year ahead?

Jeffers: I believe development interest and activity will continue. Quality market-rate housing is snapped up as quickly as it is built, and investment will continue to occur in the downtown area, with older properties seeing new investment and development interest. L-A will increasingly be recognized as more affordable than southern Maine, but providing a high quality of life. Living in Lewiston, you can be on the river or local ponds and lakes in minutes, on the coast in 30 minutes and in the mountains in about an hour. The area has its own diverse and robust economy, and is within a 45-minute commute of Portland, Augusta and the Mid-Coast. I expect more renewable energy investment and redevelopment activity in the Bates, Hill and Continental mills and southern gateway.

Cousens: There are going to be challenges with revenue-sharing, unemployment and some businesses struggling. With $55.8 million in new structures approved by the Planning Board, totaling 269,000 square feet of new floor area, and two solar projects totaling $34 million in investment and 80 acres of new panels, the next six months looks incredible for development. Our City Council, staff and COVID recovery team are working to help those in need overcome the current challenges, those that we have not yet encountered, and provide support in any way that we can. Fortunately, there are resources and plans to support businesses. We encourage any Auburn business that needs assistance to reach out to city staff and let us know how we can help. There may be an existing program or your unique challenge may help us modify a planned program to meet the need.


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