April 06, 2020

‘THAT WAS OUR MILL’ Investing in Maine’s legacy: Breathing new life into the buildings of a lost era



The empty carcasses are scattered throughout the region, and their massive hulks are obvious. Their solid, brick shells, the discarded bodies of dead paper, shoe and textile mills in Maine and New England, were left behind when the industries departed south for cheaper labor and materials.

Abandoned for years, many of these contaminated industrial sites had few prospects until a movement to preserve the region’s history by reusing the castoff buildings began to give them life again.

When stepping into one of these forgotten structures, with its walls crumbling and water leaking in some deep, dark corner, the building’s underlying beauty and often exquisite architecture is sometimes easy to overlook.

But the sense of place – of history – is abundant.

The presence of the former workers lingers even after the structures have been refurbished with new electrical and heating systems and today’s technology.

“I remember the loss of the textile industry,” Earle Shettleworth Jr., director of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, said recently. “We had friends and neighbors who worked in the mills. One day they had a job, and the next day they didn’t.”

When companies in the southern part of the country, where labor was mostly unorganized and power cheaper, began to invest in more efficient and productive equipment in the 1960s, they drew industry away from New England, leaving behind the buildings as relics.

With little security at the structures, youngsters, mischief makers and the homeless vandalized or misused the abandoned giants, sometimes destroying things and sometimes taking up residence. But a significant change is under way.

“These buildings were once billed as liabilities and are now significant assets,” Shettleworth said. “Communities and private developers have been investing in the acquisition of these buildings and the redevelopment of them.

“Communities are turning these situations around and are making them a part of the economy once again,” he said.

With leaking roofs, buckling floors and unknown environmental hazards, the industrial sites sometimes were razed to the horror of historians.

“What’s lost is an opportunity to take the past into the future,” Roxanne Eflin, Maine Preservation’s executive director, said recently. “You’ve lost the history and the story of the community and the opportunity to redevelop a historical building and make it something for today.

“When a historic building is lost, it’s gone forever,” she said.

Maine Preservation, created by residents in 1971, is a partner with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It advocated for the creation of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission.

The movement to refurbish old factories has become so popular that some national businesses, such as Uno Chicago Bar and Grill, a chain restaurant with branches at the Bangor Mall and the Maine Mall in South Portland, have made their interiors resemble a historic factory.

Hollywood placed a spotlight on the region’s industrial history through the film “Empire Falls,” based on a novel by Richard Russo about the closing of a clothing mill in the imaginary town of Empire Falls, Maine.

Over the last half-century, many of Maine’s industrial towns have experienced mill closings. Georgia-Pacific Corp. in Old Town shut its doors in March and displaced 450 people, becoming the most recent. Community members and former G-P workers are still digesting news that four companies have plans to redevelop the Old Town mill and return jobs to the site. G-P’s final sale is set to take place Oct. 27.

For many mill towns, the sting of closure has faded, but in Brewer, the loss of Eastern Fine Paper Co., which operated on the Penobscot River for more than 100 years, still hurts more than 21/2 years after its demise.

“That was our mill,” Manley DeBeck said recently, expressing his exasperation over the closing. “We all had to get over it and move on, but there is a place in my mind that will never get over it.”

The Brewer city councilor worked at the mill for 181/2 years, and his grandmother, mother and two uncles also were Eastern Fine millworkers.

While some communities waited for another company to occupy their empty mills or looked for deep-pocket investors, others – Lewiston is a perfect example – decided to invest in their futures by reinvesting in their pasts.

Brewer is another such community. After trying to restart the mill, city leaders acquired Eastern Fine in May 2004 as part of the sale of its parent company and began the work necessary to return it to a viable and tax-producing entity.

Funding the redevelopment

Redeveloped mill success stories may be found all around the state, region and country. Brewer leaders took a good look at what worked and what didn’t before moving forward.

They visited Alexandria, Va., to tour the Torpedo Factory Art Center, a mill refurbished in 1974 that has become a successful visual arts center. There they quickly discovered that there are several ways to fund a redevelopment.

“This is a no-brainer for cities to do, but it takes a lot of nerves,” Greg Mitchell, former Lewiston assistant city administrator, said recently.

Lewiston, considered to be the hardest hit by the textile industry departure, was left with dozens of buildings, the largest and most prominent the Bates Manufacturing Co., an 11-building complex with 1.2 million square feet of space in the city’s downtown.

More than 14 years ago, Lewiston began renovations on the Bates Mill, incorporated in 1850. Through its partnership with local developer Tom Platz, Bates Mill LLC, the former textile mill site has changed into developable space, one piece at a time.

“Platz, on a piecemeal basis, got individual buildings occupied, and it seemed something was happening,” Douglas Hodgkin, a Lewiston historic preservation board member and former Bates College professor, said recently.

The partnership allows the city to apply for federal and state cleanup and development funds, while private funds are used to renovate the site.

The old, run-down, 19th century buildings are now stripped bare for the most part and ready for tenants. Nearly two dozen businesses today call the site home, and city officials think it’s only a matter of time before the remaining space – and there is a lot of it – will be filled.

“All of our investment in the Bates Mill was a catalyst,” Mitchell said. “It’s had a huge impact on the community’s image, its confidence and the opportunities for our future.”

Bates is just one of many revitalization projects happening in Lewiston, he said.

The Bowdoin Mill in Topsham, which for years manufactured newsprint in a yellow, three-plus-story mill that overlooks Brunswick Falls, is similar to Lewiston in that private developers followed the plan of what the community wanted.

The big difference is that there was no official partnership with the city, and no federal funds were used. The Bowdoin Mill, which, like the Bates complex, had numerous buildings clustered together, closed in 1985 and was given a face-lift in 1998 by developers and brothers Peter and Ric Quesada, who created Bowdoin Mill Associates LLC. The Quesadas fixed or removed one building at a time until the site was transformed into what now resembles a quaint New England community. “We created it to weave into the fabric of the town,” Ric Quesada said recently.

Now that the mill is complete, the brothers continue to work with Topsham on revitalizing the entire lower village.

In some cases, such as with the Knox Woolen Co. in Camden and Ayer’s Island in Orono, the plans and funds are 100 percent private – a fact that drives the redevelopment of the former mills.

MBNA acquired a partially redeveloped Knox mill in 1993, five years after it closed, and within months, using corporate funding, the mill was chic office space with exposed beams and new views of the Megunticook River that were covered years ago.

The mill immediately became an attraction and a place employees loved. It sold for approximately $11 million in December and is being renovated into high-end condominiums with available retail space.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Ayer’s Island on the Penobscot River in Orono and its Striar Textile Co. mill, purchased in 2003 by a University of Maine professor. With little financial backing, plans to transform the contaminated woolen mill into a research and development center are at a standstill.

To get federal and state funds to clean up the environmental hazards left by Eastern Fine and to protect the city from liability, Brewer leaders created South Brewer Redevelopment LLC, or SBR, and started looking for a developer.

In Old Town, the city has created Great Works Development LLC for similar reasons.

By forming SBR and GWD, the communities can pursue federal and state funding while working with private investors on the projects. Without the partnerships, whoever purchased the mill sites would be stuck with the cleanup and renovation costs.

Environmental issues

Most mills create some environmental concerns through their operation, and many established their own dumps before laws prohibited them. Half-buried and unmarked barrels of hazardous waste, for example, were left at Eastern Fine in Brewer.

Cleanup of the hazards is one of the biggest hurdles when it comes to redevelopment, John Mullin, dean of the graduate school at the University of Massachusetts, said recently.

“You can’t do anything without doing that first,” he said. “That’s fundamental.”

Mullin grew up in a Massachusetts mill town and is a specialist in preservation and reuse of manufacturing sites.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recognized the redevelopment obstacle and created the National Brownfields Program in 1995 to assist with assessing hazards and cleaning them up. The program is a collaborative effort among federal, state and local partners.

Over the last decade, Maine communities have received $15,257,019 in brownfield program grants and loans from the EPA and state brownfield funding. Of the $10.9 million contributed by the feds, 16 communities or groups have benefited. Lewiston has taken in more than $1.8 million in federal EPA money, Brewer was given $1.55 million, and Orono was awarded $861,770.

The EPA issued the state’s Department of Environmental Protection $4.3 million over the same period to run the state brownfields program, with most of the funds being used to do site assessments.

At a cost of between $1.5 and 2 million Maine DEP assisted Brewer by heating the Eastern Fine building for months after it closed to prevent pipes filled with chemicals from bursting.

The city has acquired $3.55 million in federal funds for the entrance and marina and another $325,000 to move City Hall to the site if the city chooses to do so. Two state grants – $15,000 for planning and $400,000 for cleanup and demolition – also have been issued.

“We’re way ahead of where we expected to be,” D’arcy Main-Boyington, Brewer economic director, said recently. “[Defunct mill sites] typically sit abandoned for years.”

Preserving history

The mill buildings are records of the region’s manufacturing industry. By uncovering windows used to light the mill interiors and removing the many layers of paint, the buildings seem to breathe again.

“The buildings are absolutely special,” Mullin said. “We need to do everything we can to save them. There is so much history tied to them that when they go, it’s like a loss of a loved one.”

The behemoth structures were built solidly with wide-open spaces to accommodate the enormous machinery and are generally easy to modify and redevelop for new uses, John Rohman, CEO of WBRC Architects and Engineers in Bangor, said recently.

“If you look beyond the parts that are falling down, the parts that are stable are beautiful and attractive,” he said. “They’re actually fantastic sites for new developments. Many of the mill buildings are on fantastic parcels [of land].”

Eflin of Maine Preservation added, “Mill sites are highly adaptive. Examples abound throughout the Northeast of how people have creatively done this.”

Mass MoCA – the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art – is the poster child for mill redevelopment in New England. The massive North Adams mill was deserted in the mid-1980s, leaving thousands jobless, but came back to life in 1999 and now draws artists and people from all over the globe.

Lowell, Mass., which has become home to a national park based on New England’s labor and industrial history, is a perfect example of how public-private partnerships can turn around an economically challenged mill community. Planners from all over the country, including ones from Brewer, have visited the Lowell National Historical Park to see how to follow the community’s example.

Around the state, there are several examples of redeveloped mills completed years ago that are successful, including The River House in Old Town, which once was a shoe factory and now is senior housing, and the Waldo Shoe plant in Belfast, which is a three-level office-studio complex.

Work began in 2001 on the Upper Mill of The Mills at Salmon Falls across the river from South Berwick. The facility is filled with artists, while the Lower Mill, started a few years before, is home to a variety of business tenants.

The defunct Hathaway shirt factory, which operated in Waterville for 165 years and closed in 2002, is changing into the Hathaway Creative Center, and the historic Kennebec Arsenal campus in Augusta, one of the last standing armories in the nation, is being refurbished into housing, office and retail space and a marina.

Recently unveiled plans for Saco Island, a 15-acre parcel between Saco and Biddeford, call for an $80 million investment to change the empty factories on the island into condominiums and office and commercial space.

With so many barren buildings scattered around the region, the long list continues to grow as communities rebuild their economic bases and developers invest in buildings that time forgot.

What works

Anyone with deep pockets can redevelop a historic building, but when a community wants to do it, public-private partnerships seem to be the way to go because they provide access to federal and state cleanup and redevelopment money.

By attacking one piece of the larger project at a time and refurbishing that structure, residents get to see the renovation moving forward, which often leads to additional momentum and backing for the preservation movement.

“Historic preservation is the ultimate recycling effort,” Eflin said. “It makes the most sense.”

The piece-by-piece redevelopment of the former mills in Lewiston has been a slow process, but was well worth the effort, Mitchell said proudly. The community that for years has been known as economically challenged and riddled with crime because of it is becoming a destination point and continues to improve, he said.

“If you haven’t been here recently … you’ll see a dramatic change,” Mitchell said.

A year after the paper mill doors closed in Brewer, city officials announced they were working toward creating a public-private partnership and selected a developer. After numerous changes to the original plans, however, city leaders this year decided to request a second round of proposals.

At the end of August, the city selected Niemann Capital LLC, a community development firm led by North Carolina-based developer Tom Niemann, to refurbish the 100-year-old mill into town houses with a health club, a restaurant, retail space and an art-theater complex. A marina that connects to a historic walking trail that will stretch from the site north to just beyond the Penobscot Bridge is included in the investment team’s plans.

The focus of Niemann Capital is preserving and restoring historic landmarks. The firm, created in 1994 in Durham, N.C., has been instrumental in refurbishing several tobacco and textile mills in that city’s downtown that have revitalized the entire urban district and dramatically changed the city for the better.

“This is what they do,” Main-Boyington said.

While the city works to get a developer deal signed with Niemann Capital, city personnel continue to “look under every rock” for funding to put together pieces of the multimillion-dollar redevelopment project, she said.

As former employees heal from the bitter ending of the paper industry in Brewer and Old Town, the communities are adapting.”It’s very painful for the people involved, but sometimes it’s not a bad thing,” Main-Boyington said. “It is what it is. This is the economy, so you can either change or disappear.”

Mullin, who has worked to preserve more than 50 manufacturing sites all over New England in recent years, said it takes time, money and a tremendous amount of patience.

“Clearly, they have a future, but we get questions all the time about if this thing will work,” he said. “Oftentimes, that old mill that was going to wrack and ruin is stunningly beautiful. What we’re seeing is them being developed into everything from museums and housing to upscale offices.

“They’re a legacy of the culture, and of the community that is attached to them,” Mullin said. “They are history.”

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