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Updated: June 13, 2022 Focus on Lewiston/Auburn/Western Maine

Target market: Commercial development sizzles in Auburn, adding to L-A region’s appeal

Photo / Tim Greenway Futureguard Building Products Inc. is an awnings maker in the midst of a $17 million expansion. Brian Buteau, left, is Futureguard’s vice president of operations, and Joe Morin is director of business development at SummerSpace, the flagship brand.

Target and Five Guys are coming to Center Street, local factories are expanding, and the city recently made national headlines as America’s “YIMBYest,” for “Yes in My Backyard” to new development.

Welcome to Auburn, where commercial development is sizzling.

“There’s a buzz here in Auburn, I feel like we have some momentum, and I’m very excited about the future,” says Joe Morin, business development director at SummerSpace LLC, the flagship brand of Auburn-based awnings maker Futureguard Building Products Inc.

Futureguard is in the midst of a $17 million expansion that’s expected to add 70 new jobs in the next 24 months.

New jobs will also be created at a 105,000-square-foot Target store due to open later this year in a space formerly occupied by Kmart. Currently under construction, the site is being developed by the Minneapolis-based national retailer in collaboration with VHB, a South Portland-based civil engineering firm, and Bignell Watkins Hasser Architects, of Annapolis, Md.

File Photo / Tim Greenway
Auburn’s mayor, Jason Levesque

“A new Target is a validation of our hard work opening Auburn up to more residents and commercial growth,” says Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque. “Growth attracts growth.”

Including Target’s estimated $10 million investment, Levesque expects $100 million coming to the 24,000-population city this year along with the creation of 300 to 400 new jobs at new and existing businesses. He also sees “a good chance” of breaking $200 million in new investment by June 2023.

Photo / Tim Greenway
A sign is not up yet, but this is the site of a 105,000 Target store currently under construction at 603 Center St. in Auburn, where a Kmart once stood.

Twin cities on different tracks

Lewiston-Auburn’s regional business boom comes five years after voters rejected a proposed merger between the two cities and less than a year after office supply retailer Staples moved from Lewiston to Auburn, with a new coworking space called Staples Connect.

Lewiston, which has a population of 37,000, also recently filed a lawsuit against its twin city over a proposed rezoning plan around Lake Auburn, a water source for both cities and the town of Poland.

Urban-sibling rivalry aside, business momentum is strong in both places as Auburn attracts a growing number of franchises and factory expansions, while Lewiston prefers to focus on the redevelopment of its downtown.

Last year, for example, the Downtown Lewiston Association and LA Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce held a business incubator contest called JumpStartME won by the Rusty Bus Brewing Co., a craft brewer coming to 120 Lisbon St.

“We have McDonald’s and Burger King, but Lewiston is not a place the bigger chains typically go to,” says Lincoln Jeffers, the city’s economic development director. Referencing eight new locally owned downtown restaurants including Rusty Bus, he says, “It’s those kinds of projects we’re seeing taking historic downtown buildings and redeveloping them with housing above and retail and restaurants at street level.”

He estimates $85.5 million in incoming investment this year, including $13 million in utility-scale solar projects under construction, and around 60 new jobs.

“Everyone is looking for workers [and] several of our manufacturers are considering adding a second shift,” he says.

Franchise feeding frenzy

While Target hasn’t yet set a date for its Auburn store opening, Five Guys was scheduled to open June 5 at 223 Center St., where the Varney Agency, an insurer, used to be.

“It was a very expensive process to get a bank safe out,” says Jody Goehring, co-founder and managing partner of Five Guys franchise Hyde Park Ventures, of Natick, Mass.

“We shut traffic down for half an hour, and it was quite a process.”

Five Guys has other locations in Bangor, Waterville, Augusta, Brunswick, South Portland and Biddeford.

“Maine is a tremendous market for us, it’s a great customer for the brand, and we’ve opened all across the state from Bangor to South Portland and done really well,” says Goehring. “Over the last 18 months we’ve been spending a lot of time in the Auburn and Lewiston communities and found a tremendous amount of demand for a Five Guys.”

Photo / Tim Greenway
Auburn’s new Five Guys fast-casual restaurant, photographed a few days before its June 6 grand opening, plans to employ 50 people.

Through friends of friends, Hyde Park Ventures connected with landlord Paul Rancourt, owner of the property at 223 Center St., where Five Guys added a mobile pickup window. He says the Lewiston-Auburn area had been on the company’s radar for some time.

“It’s the biggest dual community in the state of Maine that we didn’t have a presence in,” Goehring says. Of the Center Street property in particular, he says his company liked the easy ingress and egress, the fact that it was a single occupancy building with good street visibility and had stone and other architectural attributes that Five Guys wanted to preserve.

“Close proximity to the mall and other national retailers on Center Street was a huge plus as well,” he says.

Ahead of its early June grand opening, Five Guys had already hired 40 people for the new location, including a general manager and three shift supervisors, with plans to hire another 10.

“Surprisingly, there’s a lot of excitement to work there, better than any other market than we have in Maine for hiring right now,” Goehring says. He also says the company is looking at a few other markets in the state, with a “keen eye” on Westbrook.

Retail space grab

Elsewhere in Auburn, South Portland-based Aroma Joe’s recently opened a 2,000-square foot coffee shop and drive-thru in Auburn, in a former Dunkin’ Donuts at 791 Kittyhawk Ave. along the Interstate 95 north-south highway corridor.

Similarly, a Subway sandwich shop is moving into the Minot Avenue space vacated by the Holy Donut earlier this year. At the time, Holy Donut CEO Jeff Buckwalter called the decision to leave after only a year “gut-wrenching.”

Commercial spaces in the region don’t stay vacant for long, notes Noah Stebbins, an associate broker with the Boulos Co. in Portland.

“In Auburn, retail spaces along Center Street and around the Auburn Mall area, especially standalone spaces that can support a drive-thru, tend to get snapped up quickly,” he says, “and we’re starting to see an uptick in retail activity along Lisbon Street in Lewiston.”

Photo / Courtesy of Aroma Joe’s
Aroma Joe’s new Auburn coffee shop at 791 Kittyhawk Ave. is the 34th location in Maine for the South Portland-based franchiser.

Comparing the two cities, he adds, “I wouldn’t say Lewiston isn’t being proactive, but all in all, I’d say Auburn is one of the more proactive cities in the state.”

Specifically, he says Auburn has been a model in terms of working with developers and businesses through incentives and flexible zoning regulations to encourage new development and growth, as reflected in a record number of construction permits.

“Furthermore, there are now roughly 800 housing units in the pipeline, while several businesses are in the process of  expanding their existing operations or relocating to Auburn,” Stebbins says. He also sees Lewiston as a market on the rise with several commercial and residential projects underway, adding that “I’m excited for what the next year will bring.”

In Auburn, Aroma Joe’s new location comes on top of two current coffee shops in Lewiston and another in development, in the former Little Caesar’s pizza place in the Marden’s Plaza shopping mall.

The new Auburn Aroma Joe’s, opened by Windham-based franchisees Kristal Duffy and Joel Woodward, brings the chain’s total to 85 locations across seven states, including 34 in Maine.

Asked what makes Lewiston-Auburn attractive, David Tucci, chief operating officer of Aroma Joe’s, says, “You really need to have that perfect alignment between a franchisee operator in place looking to grow and expand or open in a particular community. Line that up with the availability of real estate, and that’s really the driving factor.” As with any new location, the Auburn site was suggested by franchisees and then put to Aroma Joe’s real state committee.

Pluses for the new Auburn location include accessibility, visibility and “pure demographics” in terms of being situated in a densely populated area, Tucci says: “You don’t have a town center … but you’re fishing where the fish are.”

While each Aroma Joe’s location is independently owned and operated, Tucci says each tends to employ around 15 people once a site is up and running.

Elsewhere in Auburn, other new kids on the block include:

  • Olive Garden restaurant coming to 649 Turner St., site of the former Ruby Tuesday restaurant, in a plan approved by city officials last October;
  • OTTO Pizza opening in July at 730 Center St.;
  • Maine Dentistry, which recently opened its third location in the state at 34 Center St. following a $250,000 renovation;
  • Cheesy Skillet, a new locally owned eatery at the Auburn-Lewiston Airport in Auburn; and
  • Nutty Netties Café at the Auburn Mall.

VIP Tires on a roll

Elsewhere on the retail front, VIP Tires & Service is expanding its regional footprint. Headquartered in Auburn, at 24 Harriman Dr., the chain of service centers has a retail store at 138 Center St., in a space formerly occupied by Legends Sports Bar. The company has nine bays at the new service center, up from four at its previous Auburn location.

The chain of 65 car-servicing centers, owned by Executive Chairman John Quirk, employs close to 600 people in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts. In Lewiston, it has retail locations at 485 Sabattus St., which opened in 1957 as VIP Auto Discount Center, and at 520 Lisbon St.

Photo / Courtesy of VIP Tires & Service
Tim Winkeler, president and CEO of VIP Tires & Service.

“We’ve always felt like the L-A region was like a hidden gem, and we’ve done very well in this market with our three retail stores,” says Tim Winkeler, the company’s president and CEO.  “All three stores are having record years, and it’s been a phenomenal market for us the last few years.”

Calling the Auburn expansion a “big win,” he says the company has already doubled its business at the larger location, which also houses offices for corporate staff, while its former  warehouse  at 12 Lexington St. in Lewiston is now an L.L.Bean manufacturing site. VIP Tires employs a total of 32 people at its three locations in the twin cities.

Winkeler says that while recruiting new employees is challenging for everyone, VIP Tires never laid any employees off during the pandemic and sees L-A’s lower cost of living compared to greater Portland as a big plus for attracting employees.

“That’s where L-A really has a sweet spot,” says Winkeler, who lives in Falmouth. “Even though real estate prices and values are escalating there as well, on a relative basis it’s still much more affordable than some of your southern Maine areas.” Of Auburn in particular, he says the city’s outreach and marketing “has made it easier for us, because more people know about the city and maybe have it within their consideration set.”

Photo / Courtesy of VIP Tires & Service
VIP Tires & Service has a retail store at 138 Center St. in Auburn, shown here, as well as two stores in Lewiston.

Growing factory footprints

Despite the flurry of new businesses coming to Auburn, Economic Development Director Jay Brenchik says they’re not the city’s main focus.

“Our existing businesses are the backbone of our local economy and have committed themselves to our community, so we have put a higher priority on supporting them,” he says.

Large business expansions include Futureguard’s $17 million buildout as it gets ready to roll out its new SummerSpace brand of pool, patio and spa products this July; a $15 million expansion by Tambrands Inc., an Auburn-based subsidiary of Procter & Gamble Co., to add 116,000 square feet of factory and warehouse space at its Hotel Road facility, which currently makes about 9.5 million tampons a day; and Packgen, an Auburn-based specialty packaging manufacturer which according to city officials is looking to build a new facility at Cascade Drive to accommodate recent and expected substantial growth.

“Auburn is in the midst of a renaissance,” says Futureguard’s Morin, a lifelong resident of the city who is also a city councilor. “We will only be limited by our imagination and our willingness to embrace the change that is long overdue for our city.”

Local entrepreneur Misty Edgecomb, owner of ME Massage Therapy in Auburn currently working on a gift-registry app called Thoughtful Giving she aims to launch this summer, is equally heartened by all the new businesses coming to the area.

“I am truly excited about seeing our cities expand and grow,” she says.

Photo / Tim Greenway
Levi Lane works on a spa room at Futureguard’s factory in Auburn.

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