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January 8, 2018

Merger failed, but L/A businesses are working hard to build on both cities' strengths

Photo / Tim Greenway
Photo / Tim Greenway
Andy Nichols is CEO of Elmet Technologies, a manufacturer that has 200 employees and has been a fixture in Lewiston since 1929.
Photo / Tim Greenway
Elmet Technologies has been in Lewiston since 1929. It started by creating filaments for incandescent light bulbs, but has evolved to produce semiconductor manufacturing parts.
Photo / Russ Dillingham
Bates Mill No. 5.

Initiatives to propel L/A have shown a wide range

Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce plans a summer 2018 public showcase of L/A businesses and development initiatives, with networking opportunities.

The chamber is ramping up its new discoverlamaine.com website to showcase attractions for tourism and business formation/relocation.

Lewiston is establishing a downtown historic district to allow contributing structures to be on the national register, thus eligible for tax credits and ripe for development.

Lewiston's various loan and grant programs tackle issues like elevator and life safety improvements. A residential loan program aims to rebuild dilapidated stock and attract downtown occupancy.

In Auburn, Jason Levesque aims to boost internet penetration through collaboration between businesses and schools. College students mentor high school students in how to build a website for a local business, leveraging real-world training opportunities, helping small businesses, and retaining youth for future employment.

Bates Mill continues to grow

The Bates Mill Complex in Lewiston continues to attract occupants. Platz Associates Principal Tom Platz purchased most of the complex, excluding Mill 5, from the city in 2004 and redeveloped seven buildings. He's since leased 490,000 of the 650,000 square feet of space. In 2017, that includes the healthcare company Grand Rounds in 25,000 square feet and two food-related businesses in 15,000 square feet. He recently fielded inquiries for another 100,000 square feet from two Boston businesses.

The campus's largest building - the two-story, 350,000-square-foot Mill 5 - remains unoccupied.

"We have some viable candidates but we haven't started renovations," he says.

The complex dates back to Bates Manufacturing Co.'s textile roots in the 1850s. Once Maine's largest employer, Bates at its 1950s peak employed more than 6,000.

Growth council's shifting status

The Lewiston Auburn Economic Growth Council started in 1981 so the cities could work effectively together for the benefit of both, offering business expansion, financing and site location services. Over the past year, Lewiston and Auburn's city councils voted to end the organization's funding.

As a result, the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce is in the process of acquiring the growth council, with Scott Benson and part-time loan portfolio manager John Belisle likely joining the chamber.

"People might tend to see the changes the growth council has had over the past couple of years as a sign that it would end," Benson says. "Really what needed to happen was we needed to take stock of where we were and what was needed as a regional player. We've done that. I think we'll be better and stronger as we go forward with the chamber."

Among the growth council's successes:

. Servicing $3 million in revolving loans to 35 business, with another $900,000 available to lend.

. Played a key role in business attraction of new industry to L/A, including the 850,000-square-foot Wal-Mart Distribution Center in Lewiston, and more recently, Grand Rounds, a San Francisco-based health care company opening its first East Coast offices in Lewiston.

. Worked with local development partners to finance and construct new commercial/industrial buildings and business parks to accommodate the expansions of new and existing companies.

Elmet Technologies has occupied the same location, on Lisbon Street in Lewiston, since 1929.

In its early years, Elmet was in the lighting business, manufacturing tungsten filament for incandescent bulbs. At its peak, it was one of three largest light filament manufacturers in world and had more than 1,000 employees.

In the early 1990s, LED lights were taking over the market, obviating the need for filaments.

"But people here had been working with other products, so we focused on getting into new applications and new markets," says CEO Andy Nichols.

Today, Elmet specializes in high-purity molybdenum, tungsten and related alloys for the defense, automative, aircraft, semiconductor, thin film, electronics and medical imaging industries, serving customers globally and growing 5% to 6% per year. "We're trying to do things with metals that most people think are impossible, because these metals are extremely brittle," Nichols says.

Among the company's biggest strengths, says Nichols, is its workforce, now 200 people. Thanks to Lewiston and Auburn's long manufacturing heritage, a strong work ethic is part of the cities' fabric.

"We're blessed to have a very good workforce in Lewiston/Auburn," Nichols says. "We've employed thousands of people and four generations here."

No merger, so what's next?

Elmet evokes themes seen broadly among L/A's host of long-time and newer commercial enterprises, many having a local-to-global story in addition to thriving through that work ethic, which dates back to 19th century manufacturing. Still, when manufacturing declined and jobs disappeared, L/A's image as a place to live or grow a business was tarnished.

But things have been turning around. L/A's geographic advantages make it a transportation and logistics hub, which has spurred development of industrial parks. Mills and downtowns have attracted redevelopment and burgeoning commercial and residential activity.

For some residents, merging Lewiston and Auburn would have leveraged the cities' advantages. Supporters like Gene Geiger, CEO of the Lewiston promotional products company Geiger and chair of the Lewiston and Auburn Joint Charter Commission, say the merger would have been a way to attain economic efficiences and a focus on collective energies toward promoting L/A as a desirable place to live, work and start a business — a rethinking of government operations and community services in pursuit of achieving best outcomes for the merged cities.

The proposal failed. But merger or not, local observers say Lewiston and Auburn are works in progress whose current reinvention is well on its way. And there's plenty of push in both communities to work together to make sure the world knows about L/A both as a thriving commercial and industrial center and a destination.

Hidden gems

Driving along Lisbon Street, you'd scarcely notice Elmet Technologies. As Rebecca Swanson Conrad, president of the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, says, it's one of L/A's many "hidden gems."

"I've been thinking about strategies for marketing Lewiston/Auburn's hidden gems," she says, citing another example, Rancourt & Co., for 50 years manufacturer of high-end hand-sewn shoes and located down an obscure side street behind the Central Maine Medical Center campus. "You don't see many of the wonderful things that are happening here, that are much more visible in other communities."

On a December day, Conrad takes a visitor on a tour to see what she means. Lewiston and Auburn's downtowns have growing numbers of restaurants, shops, offices and apartments. Plus there are businesses opened by Somali and other East African immigrants, who began arriving around 2000. Redeveloped mills are booming with commercial and residential activity, with plenty of space for more.

Driving past some of those buildings, Conrad points out McIntosh & Co. Cabinetmakers, Bourgeois Guitars and the Maine Thread Co. Ironhorse Court, an events center redeveloped from an old railway station, is tucked away on a side street. There are hospitals, higher education institutions and residential neighborhoods of different characters, like Little Canada, whose residences are former mill housing. The cities invest in amenities like parks and a river walk. Cultural offerings like the Great Falls Balloon Festival, Baxter Brewfest and Museum LA attract visitors. On the outskirts, industrial parks are home to warehouse and distribution centers and businesses with national and international reach, making anything from fine furnishings to turnout gear to plastic compounds to incense products.

Transformation

At Paul's Clothing and Shoe Store in downtown Lewiston, owner Paul Poliquin has seen plenty of change during his 46 years on Lisbon Street.

"In 1972, Lisbon Street was booming," he says. "We had retail stores open on both sides, all the way up and down Lisbon Street. When you'd walk out the door, you'd bump into people on the sidewalks. It was always packed."

Eric Agren, owner of the Lewiston restaurants Fuel and Marche, grew up here. He says that, like Poliquin, customers of his parents' generation speak fondly of Lisbon Street as a thriving retail and restaurant sector before the mills' decline. But by the late 1980s and early '90s, "The overall feeling was that downtown Lewiston was not a safe place to go," Agren says. "There were bars and clubs that seemed a little seedy. There were incidents of prostitution and drugs on Lisbon Street. I'm not sure how rampant that was. But the overall feeling was that it was a dump."

Today, L/A's downtowns are picking up again. When Agren opened Fuel in 2009, he detected a synergy taking place — more commercial and residential activity, as buyers picked up properties for a song and redeveloped them for first-floor retail and upper-story residential. Agren is one of those developers, buying buildings with features like original tin ceilings and hardwood floors and redeveloping them as high-end condominiums.

"Collectively, we've put multiple millions into the downtown," Agren says of his own and others' efforts, citing buildings that were boarded up until less than a decade ago, but are today full of enterprise.

But more is needed for a healthy future, he says.

"The more businesses and restaurants that are downtown, the better," he says. "It creates a place to go. There are a lot of great venues, but it's not a cohesive downtown. You go to Fuel and have dinner. You go to Guthrie's for live music on Friday night. But you don't say, 'Let's go down to Lisbon Street.' I'd love to see that happen someday."

Many of these businesses, newcomers and long-timers, are L/A-grown.

"There's always been great innovation here," says Lewiston Economic and Community Development Department Director Lincoln Jeffers. "'How do we get this done? Let's figure it out.' That heritage lives on in the community."

Jason Levesque, Auburn's mayor and owner of Argo Customer Centers in Lewiston, views L/A as ripe for drawing more companies from outside the area, particularly those facing a space crunch in greater Portland; as well as workers at southern Maine companies who could find affordable homes in L/A and commute or telecommute to work.

"That will, for the future, create a sustainable pipeline of activity," Levesque says. "You've got to build a foundation for businesses, yet to be invented, to be here."

Economic efficiency questions raised by the merger proposal can be addressed at the local level without a merger, he says.

"Lewiston and Auburn have unique assets," he says. "We focus on our unique assets, and both cities will rise. What's good for Auburn is good for Lewiston and vice versa."

Building the self-image

Andrew Knight arrived from Washington, D.C., to develop the Agora Grand Event Center and Inn at the Agora from Lewiston's former St. Patrick's Church and Rectory. Both proved successful, he says.

"I found it to be a great city, good quality of living, low unemployment, good infrastructure," he says.

Still, he was frustrated by his initial reception from residents, along the lines of, "'Why would you come here, it's nothing but crack and knife fights,'" he recalls. "There has to be a change of perspective in the people who live here."

Scott Benson, economic and business development director for the Lewison-Auburn Economic Growth Council, agrees that L/A's attractions might not be front of mind for residents who witnessed the cities' decline as a manufacturing colossus.

"How many families worked at Bates Mill and were fed and clothed and nurtured?" Benson says. "When those jobs went away, people don't just forget about that. I don't think it's unusual that the cities' self-image has suffered somewhat."

The cities and the business communities, he says, could do a better job of telling the story of transformation.

"Expansions, additions of jobs — these companies would not be doing this if this were not a good place for them to do business," he says. "I think we all can do a better job of celebrating what's great, recognizing and addressing our weaknesses, but not disregarding our many strengths."

"We'd like to get the good news out there," agrees Jeffers. "I think the cities work well together. Our driving force is the local businesses and the businesses wanting to come to the area. One community or the other may be able to better serve them. Auburn has the airport and better rail, and Lewiston has much more of the historic mills and historic downtown. Is there competition between the two cities? Yes. Is it friendly and respectful? Yes."

Coincidentally, he echoes Levesque: "What's good for Lewiston is good for Auburn and vice versa."

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