June 05, 2020
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For Lisbon, it’s a million-dollar question: Buy Worumbo Mill or not?

LISBON, Maine — The air is thick with allspice, cloves, garlic and onion, ingredients for fresh pork pie, and coolers are stocked with hundreds of loops of smoked sausage, neat and inviting.

Ninety percent of customers at Maurice Bonneau’s Sausage Kitchen are from out of town, drawn by the tens of thousands of dollars the company spends every year on catchy “Mmm, mmm” ads.

Sausage Kitchen bought the former post office from the town five years ago when it moved onto Main Street.

Company President Andre Bonneau is tired of seeing neighboring businesses leave town.

In three weeks, TD Bank will close its Lisbon branch, moving those jobs to Brunswick. Drapeau’s, the state’s largest costume rental shop, will move to Topsham as soon as the owner can sell her building.

In Tuesday’s election, Bonneau sees a chance to rebuild: Townspeople will decide whether to spend $1 million to either tear down or renovate the Worumbo Mill at the head of Main Street.

It’s one of several happenings that leaders point to as having potential to lift up the town: New attention to the Route 196 corridor; talk at the high school of pursuing a new gym and performance arts center sooner than planned; plans to transform a scrubby lot where Graziano’s once stood into a new, vibrant restaurant and corner.

Bonneau is convinced it begins with Worumbo.

“It’s a shame to let something like that go,” he said. “This town needs an anchor — I don’t think we’re going to be it.”

But it’s a prickly topic. At a public hearing in September, some residents urged town councilors to stay out of the real estate business.

The year-old Positive Change Lisbon, a group of residential and business boosters, has members on both sides of the question; it’s avoided taking a position.

“It’s a tough and very emotional discussion in our town,” said Ross Cunningham, president of Positive Change Lisbon’s board of directors. “It was such a big part of who we were for such a long time.”

Million-dollar question

The nearly 100-year-old mill has “Worumbo” in fancy scroll letters written on its side. It’s cream colored and covers 100,000 square feet, with broken windows and an abandoned, industrial feel. It hasn’t been operational since 2006.

According to a Remax listing, owner Miller Industries is asking $699,000 for the building and 5.75 acres.

Town Manager Steve Eldridge said the 30-year, $1 million bond would cover a purchase price of only $100,000 and an estimated $525,000 for demolition, along with site work after the fact. The town could also pursue federal funds for any hazardous cleanup projects.

The bond would add 29 cents to the tax rate, or $29 a year on a $100,000 home for the next three decades.

Over the years, private developers have looked and looked and passed on the mill.

Eldridge still holds out some hope.

“I’m a preservationist; I’d like to see things kept,” he said. “It’s an icon.”

If the question passes Tuesday, councilors likely will move to put demolition work out to bid, but not until spring.

“We still have some interested parties out there who have been working with a Realtor; this just gives the council the authority, if all the other stuff falls through, they can move forward,” Eldridge said. “We’re leaving that door open.”

If the town becomes the owner, it could subdivide the cleaned lot and sell the riverfront property to developers. There’s also been talk of park space.

Bonneau wants to see a tavern and an inn in that spot.

“If this is going to happen, this is the way,” he said. “No sane business owner or developer is going to stick his neck out to take on that piece of property even if they got it for $1, to assume liability for millions in cleanup.”

Scott Kelly wants to let the private market take care of the mill. Kelly owns drilling company ETTI and has been developing a 50-acre business park in town.

“If you’re going to ask the people in the town of Lisbon to spend $1 million, why don’t you invest that into getting things set up that’s going to attract the right developer to take that building down?” Kelly said. “Put it in your sidewalks, put it into ripping down some really bad eyesores in town. It’s a waste of money to spend $1 million and you’ve only impacted one small parcel of land.”

Why not here?

To back Worumbo or not is just the first of several questions for Lisbon.

Later this month, town councilors will be asked to support a Route 196 master plan by Amanda Bunker, a senior land-use planner at Wright-Pierce who Lisbon hired more than a year ago to study the busy corridor.

Among her ideas:

— Stronger design standards and guidelines for homes and businesses;

— Adding decorative lampposts and benches;

— Going underground with more overhead wires.

Cunningham’s group invited a developer, a consultant and a real estate agent to give an honest assessment of the town in a forum in November 2012.

“We said, ‘Why don’t you want to build in Lisbon?’” Cunningham said. “And it was very eye-opening. They said, ‘You know what? Because 196 looks like a dump.’ They were blunt and we loved it.”

Positive Change Lisbon has since hung banners in town off telephone polls and hosted a spring cleanup day.

“I believe that the visioning plan that they’ve just gone through for 196 is key to our success,” Cunningham said. “I think a big part of Lisbon moving forward is having people see a vibrant, positive Lisbon as they drive through.”

This winter, the school board will consider whether to move ahead years sooner than expected on improvements at the high school.

Superintendent Rick Green said the long-term plan had been to act in six years, when another bond retires.

“We’ve had a number of people who’ve approached us and say we should move forward with that work and see where the community is,” he said. “We’re looking at what that actual cost would be.”

Very early ideas included building a new, larger gym — one that could fit graduation — then transforming the current gym into a performing arts center and upgrading the track.

“We’re on probation right now for our accreditation and it’s all focused on facilities, and one of the main areas is the gymnasium, which we can’t fix because we can’t make it any bigger,” Green said. “This whole Route 196 [master plan] has really stimulated the conversations and has really put people in a position to say, ‘What is the first priority?’”

The board’s facilities committee supports either a straw poll to gauge support or an actual bond question on the June ballot.

“The goal from my perspective is to get business interested in Lisbon, to shift the (tax) burden from the residential,” Eldridge said. “If people are going to locate their business here or expand a business here, they’re going to look at the school system.”

Eldridge also hopes to see plans this winter for redeveloping the former Graziano’s spot from the restaurateurs who own Luiggi’s in Lewiston.

“That should change the whole face of that whole area,” he said. “We’ve made great progress in the last five years [in town]. The whole attitude — I think we are on the cusp.”

Moving on

Bonneau recently had a woman drive up from Boston to make a day trip of visiting his sausage shop.

“It’s such a shame not to have other businesses reap the benefits of that traffic, and it would help us if there were other businesses drawing people,” he said. “You can only lose so many businesses in a business center before it dries up and blows away.”

He supports work along Route 196 and improvements at the high school but reasons it’s in taxpayers’ best interest to redevelop Worumbo first, get more taxes flowing there to spread out those costs.

“This mill property, I think, would be the linchpin of it all, the spark that sets off the flame,” Bonneau said.

His down-the-block neighbor, Kristine Cornish at Drapeau’s, said her leaving is nothing against the town. She’s inherited land in Topsham and plans to build an energy-efficient, perfectly sized space. The costume shop has roots in Lewiston back to 1956. She’s had it on Main Street for seven years.

Her feelings about what to do with Worumbo are mixed.

“I always hoped that someone would see what a gem it could be,” Cornish said. “This economy, a lot of people aren’t taking the risks, and that’s a problem.

“It could be 10 years before that’s actually in the hands of someone who has that kind of funds and is willing to invest that kind of funds in this town,” she said. “And by then it’s just going to be rubble. The elements will take care of the destruction for us.”


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