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January 22, 2018
Focus: Commercial development

Former mill site in Augusta: A blank slate waiting for developer to make something happen

Photo / Tim Greenway
Photo / Tim Greenway
Keith Luke, Augusta's deputy director of development services, on the west side of the Kennebec River, at the former Edwards Mill site. The Kennebec Locke redevelopment site is across the river. In the background is the Route 3 bridge.

The site that for 150 years housed paper mills on the east bank of the Kennebec River in Augusta seems like a developer's dream. The 17 acres has an eye-catching view of downtown and the State House downstream, and is close to Route 3 and access to Interstate 95 upstream.

The mile-long swath has been cleaned up — it's a blank slate, ready for a developer to make an imprint.

But it's also hemmed in by the river and railroad tracks and is bisected by a storm water collection system, with only six or seven developable acres. Access is through a residential street at the south end and a private road at the north.

Rendering / augusta development office
Rendering / augusta development office
A rendering of a possible development at the Kennebec Locke site on the east side of the Kennebec River in Augusta. The site housed paper mills for 150 years.

The city acquired the land in 2009 when owner American Tissue defaulted on taxes. The city razed the buildings and cleaned the site with help from an EPA brownfields grant.

A 2012 conceptual plan by the Eaton Peabody Consulting Group envisions restaurants, kayak and canoe landings, retail and housing. The site was named Kennebec Locke at Head of Tide. But two requests for proposals, one in 2011 and one last year, didn't generate any bites.

"We knew marketing was going to be challenging," says Keith Luke, Augusta's deputy director of development services. "But we're not discouraged."

Familiar scene

The scene is one being played out across Maine and throughout New England as municipalities try to find new uses for former mill sites.

Sites like Kennebec Locke that don't have usable buildings have unique challenges and often end up as open space.

Rendering / augusta development office
Rendering / augusta development office
One possible view of what development could look like at the former Statler Tissue site on Augusta's east side.

Across the river, where the Edwards mill once dominated the north end of Augusta's downtown, is a sprawling example. The mill closed in 1981 and burned down in 1989. The city tried to market the site, but developers weren't interested. It's now Mill Park, a grass expanse that includes a dog park, ice rink, pentanque (French Canadian bowling) courts, and the city's farmers market.

The park's walking path crosses the old granite slab that once was the mill's foundation, and an overlook topping the remains of the Edwards Dam, which was removed in 1999, offers gorgeous views up and down river, as well as Kennebec Locke on the opposite bank.

The lack of a usable building on the Kennebec Locke site makes development a challenge, says Frank O'Hara, a planning consultant who has worked with municipalities on development strategies.

O'Hara says successful mill redevelopments like the Hathaway Creative Center in Waterville and Lewiston's Bates Mill used historic tax credits to support the project. "They are a big boon for developers," he says.

Without a building, a developer would have to put more capital into a project and require a faster, more lucrative return to make the investment worthwhile, O'Hara says.

Augusta deputy development director Luke agrees the lack of structures at Kennebec Locke is a disadvantage — "there was nothing worth salvaging," and so, he says, "there's nothing there to qualify for."

Road not taken

The Augusta City Council last year discussed the need for an access road that would run the length of the site, but the city isn't in a position to pay the $1.5 million or more such a road would cost.

Luke says the road, though, isn't a deal-breaker.

"As an economic development professional, I'd like to see enhanced access to the site." But if the city can't afford it, he adds, "We can live with that."

The site has really only been marketable since 2015, when the cleanup was officially completed, he says.

The city's first RFP in 2011 was to test the waters. But a 2017 RFP for housing on the site, issued after interest from developers, did not result in any bids.

The 2012 consultant report suggests a mix of retail, office and high-end housing, with possible passenger rail access. Luke says housing is a "small part" of the plan.

Still, housing in the area is one piece that is moving forward, though the 29 units of workforce-affordable housing approved by the planning board on Jan. 2 isn't part of the overall development plan, Luke says. The development, at the end of Maple Street, the one public road into the site, is being built by the Augusta Housing Authority, which is not a city department.

Luke says many of the people in city government now were not there when the project was first discussed, but the goal hasn't changed.

"The city has been mindful from the beginning to seek City Council consensus and build around a shared vision that's always been a multi-use development," Luke says.

He says the site issues "don't preclude development." After all, he points out, "A paper mill operated there for 150 years."

The process takes time, he says, likening it to the Thompson's Point development in Portland. The former rail yard and industrial zone, across Interstate 295 from Portland's downtown peninsula, is home to a concert and event venue, brew pub, restaurants and more.

"It looks like a rip-roaring success, but it was 25 years in the making," Luke says.

Evolution of a riverfront site

Twenty miles up the Kennebec River, Waterville is still looking to develop the 14-acre site that once housed the Wyandotte mill. The strip along the river, also bordered by railroad tracks, has been vacant since the mill was torn down as part of the city's urban renewal effort decades ago.

In 2005, Waterville invested $1 million in water, sewer and electric, to attract developers.

The city hasn't given up, though — a $900,000 river walk project is expected to be completed by September, says City Manager Michael Roy.

He says the city believes the added amenities and people they will draw will make the site attractive to development. The city is hoping for mixed use, but Roy says care will be taken to make sure it's the best use for the city's needs.

Open space will still be important at the site, which already has a patio area and the picturesque Two-Cent Bridge, the footbridge mill workers once used to cross between Waterville and Winslow.

The project got a boost from the Waterville Rotary Club, which to celebrate its 100th anniversary (in 2018), in 2015 pledged $150,000 to the project. It also got a $300,000 grant from the National Park Service Land and Water Conservation Fund, and smaller grants from Colby College, Messalonskee Trails and Inland Hospital.

Construction is expected to begin in April and it should be completed in September.

Roy says that there were a lot of reasons it took decades for movement at Head of Falls. The city, for many years, "turned its back on the site." There was also division about what to do — develop it as residential and commercial, or as industrial. "It was paralyzing," Roy says.

Added to that, "In the 60s and early 70s, the river wasn't a pleasant place to visit. It was certainly not seen as major attraction. Now some cities would kill to have a site like this," he says.

'A village-type feel'

O'Hara, the development consultant, says that Augusta's site has an advantage over Head of Falls — Waterville is competing with the Hathaway Creative Center, a refurbished mill a quarter mile downriver. The mill has been redeveloped as residential and commercial space over the past decade, and was bought last year by North River Co. for $20 million.

"It's hard for Waterville to fill up two riverfront developments at once," O'Hara says. "Kennebec Locke doesn't have a [large] competitor on the river."

He says he's sure the site will be developed, but with the changes in office and retail markets, housing would be the driver of development.

"For a city to be healthy it needs new housing as well as old," he says. "That site could serve lots of different markets."

The site is within walking distance, across the Bridge Street bridge at its south end, from downtown Augusta. The aging population is looking for smaller residences, where downtown, restaurants and shops are within walking or biking distance.

He says younger people, too, are looking for a neighborhood that's not necessarily urban, but is a good spot for their lifestyle. A place "where the experience is as much fun as buying is," he says.?Kennebec Locke has the potential to be a "really nice residential area with a village-type" atmosphere."

A variety of smaller developers would work better for a city Augusta's size, which makes it difficult to support the kind of investment one large developer would have to make.

O'Hara says that such developments can also be the focus of social investing or "patient capital" — similar to the Rotary Club and others investing in Waterville's Head of Falls — where the rationale is not a quick return on an investment, but is "about the people."

Luke says Augusta has the advantage of owning the property, which carries no debt burden, so the city has the advantage of being able to take the time to find the right fit.

He says the city is excited about the possibilities.

Augusta "has seen all the upsides and the same downsides that any former mill-based manufacturing city in New England has. Times are going well for almost all of them," Luke says. "And I'm pleased to say that Augusta is part of that renaissance."

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