A trail off Ashmount Street in Lewiston leads to the woods where a 14-acre nature park will be developed. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

LEWISTON — The city recently announced its plans to create a 14-acre nature park for the Webster Street neighborhood. It is the kind of amenity developers and investors like to see local governments and communities develop as a way to not only improve neighborhoods but to attract more investment.

Five people who hold sway with the success of Lewiston’s future recently offered a peek into the challenges they face trying to revitalize places like Lewiston’s Bates Mill, Hill Mill and Continental Mill.

Matt Assia, director of asset management at Chinburg Properties in Newmarket, New Hampshire; Jim Brady, president of Fathom Companies in Portland; Thomas Platz, developer and architect at Platz Associates in Auburn; Paul Ureneck, director of commercial real estate at Colby College in Waterville; and Misty Parker, assistant director of Economic and Community Development for the city of Lewiston, all took part in a city-sponsored forum.

All agreed there are plenty of opportunities in Lewiston with all the vacant mills and underused or disused buildings, many from the mid-1800s.

“The most important draw to a city is their educational facilities,” Platz said. Higher education draws professionals, which in turn draws high-end buildings, high-end housing, increases the tax base and the end result is people want to live there. “If the community draws the people here, I don’t think you’ll have to worry,” he said, “we’ll all come here and develop.”

One-by-one the panelists, drawn from different segments of the commercial market, laid out what they like to see. Brady, who focuses his work in the hospitality industry in Portland, said one thing that’s critical to him as a developer is a predictable environment politically.


“That’s something that’s forcing developers out of the city of Portland these days due to the unpredictability, and the challenges of getting permitting and whether or not you want to take the risk of investing significant sums of money in a project that may or may not even get approved,” he said. He, too, said developers will go where the market is.

Ureneck brought a very unique perspective to the table. He works for Colby College, which has invested heavily in Waterville — $90 million in just the past six years. He called it a “loss leader,” a term used in retail, to mean a product sold at a loss to attract customers. Ureneck also referred to it as “social investment” in the community, which does not happen everywhere. None of the investment projects in Waterville make a profit, but the hope is that those investments will attract other investors.

In Colby College’s case, downtown Waterville essentially closed down after work hours. So the college built housing for 200 students and a hotel. Portland Pie opened a location soon after.

Ureneck pointed to many other changes made in the city to regenerate life in the downtown area, including creating a bypass for vehicles passing through and changing from diagonal to parallel parking. What has followed is a series of investments in the city. That’s what helps to attract new students and workers to the city.

Parker said Lewiston has a number of tools to attract investors, including amenities like parks and bike paths, tax credits, gap funding, tax increment financing and other loan programs. But she also pointed out one area where the city can do a better job.

“Sometimes we recognize that our zoning doesn’t work completely,” she said. What may have been established as a rule 20 or 30 years ago, may not fit with today’s needs. This is where the city works with developers to make changes to zoning or find other remedies.

The challenges Lewiston faces attracting investment in the near future is not about cooperation or working with developers. It gets high marks for that, especially from Platz, who said the city always finds a way to make things happen. What is out of the city’s control is a problem facing developers and investors across the country: inflation.

Lumber costs are predicted to rise again this summer and labor costs are already rising. Finding craftsmen with the skills to replicate older masonry and woodwork is getting harder every year. And finally, rising interest rates have already put some projects in Portland out of reach.

Yet Platz is less concerned about inflation affecting Lewiston’s chances for redevelopment. He believes there are lots of pluses on Lewiston’s side. There is ample land, opportunity for downtown housing, opportunity for those who prefer a more wooded or lake environment and more. Platz said he remains very optimistic.

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