Rebirth of a Mill, Rebirth of a City
The revitalization of the Bates Mill is on track to redefine downtown Lewiston.
- By: Joshua F. Moore
Photograph by Jason P. Smith
It’s a question that faces more than a few Maine towns: What to do with the sprawling brick mills that were left behind when textile and shoe manufacturing shifted to the South or overseas? As awe-inspiring as they were in their heyday, when tons of raw materials such as cotton and leather were transformed into thousands of finished goods each day, these looming structures became liabilities practically overnight, economic engines transformed into financial drains through their enormous heating costs and massive maintenance needs.
The problem was particularly acute in Lewiston-Auburn, which in the middle of the nineteenth century was one of the Pine Tree State’s fastest-growing urban areas, growing tenfold from 1840-1880. Mills sprang up in each of the Twin Cities, but by far the largest was the Bates Mill complex, which covered ten acres between the Androscoggin River and the canal two blocks south of Lisbon Street. In all, eleven mills were built in this area during the years that followed Bostonian Benjamin Bates’ arrival in 1857, encompassing more than 1.2 million square feet of real estate and employing some 5,500 people, many of them French-Canadian immigrants.
Fast-forward to the end of the twentieth century, and the scene at the Bates Mill was very different. Most of the last mill workers had clocked out by the 1980s, and the City of Lewiston took possession of the decaying Bates Mill complex in 1992 over unpaid taxes. Seeking to preserve this piece of its history, the city tried to turn the empty buildings into a series of business incubators by making some minor physical improvements like fresh paint and carpet. “It was a good idea, but probably a bit naïve for a municipality to think that they could become a landlord like that,” says Tom Platz, an Auburn-based, Harvard-educated architect and developer. “They quickly found they were losing about two million dollars a year, what with utility bills and maintenance needs that exceeded their expectations.” Shortly thereafter, the city partnered with Platz’s firm, Platz & Associates, to manage the complex, an arrangement that culminated in a 2001 referendum that saw Platz and his brother, Jim, take outright ownership of most of the buildings that comprise the Bates Mill.
To see the complex today, it appears that after 159 years the Lewiston mill is once again headed for more prosperous times. Broken windows have been replaced by carefully painted trim and repointed brickwork in most of the mill buildings. Full parking lots — and even the construction of new parking garages — bear testament to the 1,700 workers who once again earn a living at the Bates Mill. “We’re getting there,” says Platz, as he leafs through renderings of various mill projects, either proposed or under way, inside his Auburn office. “Our goal has always been to get 5,500 people back in the mill, working, so we’re heading in the right direction.”
Running down the list of current tenants, Platz rattles off occupancies that’d make many other owners of vacant mills green with envy: TD Bank — 200,000 square feet; Androscoggin Bank — 20,000 square feet; DaVinci’s Eatery — 10,000 square feet; Bates Mill Dermatology — 10,000 square feet; Baxter Brewing Company — 10,000 square feet; Fish Bones American Grill — 6,000 square feet; AAA of Northern New England — 5,000 square feet. Another 13,000 square feet is currently being negotiated with businesses ranging from a CPA firm to a bakery and even an expansion of an existing business. And in what is a first for the Lewiston area, this month construction is slated to begin on forty-eight residential apartments in Mill No. 2, similar to the types of mixed-use projects under way in mills in Biddeford. Of the original 750,000 square feet of space in the Bates Mill that Platz took over in 2001 (Platz says about two hundred thousand square feet of the original mill literally collapsed on its own or was demolished as soon as he took control of it), less than half is currently available.
The only vacant building that remains is the city-owned Mill No. 5, which Platz says could be relatively easily converted into an eighty thousand-square-foot convention center — making it the largest such facility north of Boston. But instead of such a facility, what has been proposed in recent years for the historic structure is a casino. “A casino was never in our picture,” Platz says. “I can certainly go with whatever people decide needs to be done, but our original dream for that space was a convention center. It’s probably the most easily converted building for a convention center in the state, but it’ll certainly take some help from outside Lewiston and Auburn.”
Regardless of what happens in that space, Platz says he’s proud of the investment that he and others have made in Lewiston-Auburn. “When we first worked on a deal with the city where they would help us with infrastructure and in exchange we would provide a certain amount of talent, we promised something like five million dollars over the first four years or so,” Platz says. “Right now I think there’s about seventy million invested.”
Though he says he is careful to regulate the pace of new developments in the Bates Mill so that it is always balanced with the demand, the sixty-year-old Auburn native says he is motivated by more than money in this project. “I grew up here. I moved away for about fourteen years while I went to school, but I came back because I believe in this area, and I believe in the mill,” he says. “I think it’s good for downtown — it’s going to be a central attraction linking the upper downtown and the riverfront.”
- By: Joshua F. Moore