Hope springs eternal in the world of “Empire Falls,” the novel by Maine writer Richard Russo. The story is set in a mid-Maine mill town — think Waterville, Winslow or Farfield — and every few months, a luxury car with out-of-state plates is spotted driving through the dormant mill property, igniting rumors that some well-heeled investors are going to revive the business. Of course, it never happens, and the falling empire of the title is that of the family that once ran the mill and the town.
Maine has too many of those vacant mill buildings, and in most cases, they speak more of the ghosts of our economic past than of future opportunity. In Lewiston earlier this month, the City Council voted to demolish part of the historic and massive Bates Mill. The city owned the property, and despite the recommendations of a task force that believed the 356,000-square-foot structure could be converted into a convention center, efforts to redevelop the property failed. The city was spending $200,000 to heat the building, so the council decided to demolish it.
Tearing down historic buildings, especially those that are architecturally attractive and structurally sound, is not something to cheer about. The Brookings Institution report, Charting Maine’s Future, cited Maine’s beautiful downtowns as key cultural and economic amenities. But sometimes, those buildings become a drain on a community’s efforts to grow and eclipse their aesthetic beauty.
Economic and Community Development Commissioner John Richardson said communities should have a three-point checklist before considering such irreversible actions: Is there a need for the structure? Does it pose a hazard to public safety? And what is the community sentiment about the building?
Often, the demolition of old industrial buildings spurs redevelopment of other buildings. In Lewiston, for example, removing 356,000-square-feet of space instantly makes what remains a little more valuable. Sometimes, what replaces the dormant building on the site is the missing link for a community — parking, green space or a new building.
And sometimes, less is more.
Mr. Richardson recommends such demolition decisions are weighed against a consensus vision about the community. And, any such moves should not threaten the community’s “quality of place.”
“You want to keep the central character,” he said. ”You want the heritage to remain.”
Among the communities that have benefited from the removal of blighted structures are Belfast, Camden, Waterville, Wilton, Sanford and Lubec. Mr. Richardson, who lives in Brunswick, said the group that is planning for reuse of the naval air station there has discussed demolishing some buildings to make the facility more suitable to redevelopment plans.
The Bates Mill complex dated to the 1800s, and it was the city’s largest employer into the 1960s. But textile production is not coming back.
The Department of Economic and Community Development distributes $19.6 million in grants to remove blighted neighborhoods, Mr. Richardson said, though that program is not limited to industrial buildings. The other side of the coin is a recently enacted state historic preservation tax credit. It takes community wisdom to know when to apply one approach over the other, but both options must remain on the table.