Eric Cousens, deputy director of Auburn's economic and community development office, stands near a section of the New Auburn revitalization that will include a river walkway and a tower housing bells restored from the former St. Louis Catholic Church. Credit: Lori Valigra

AUBURN, Maine — Auburn will open bids this month for the next phase of a $3.5 million project to revitalize a waterfront area known as New Auburn.

The city started the project in July by backfilling a floodplain with dirt. The project, aimed at attracting new investment to the area, has been in the planning phase for more than 15 years and is expected to take at least 10 years to complete, with new housing and retail shops to be added.

“New Auburn is a unique village within Auburn,”said Eric Cousens, deputy director of the Auburn Economic and Community Development office. “We’ll do most of the redevelopment work in the small, urban downtown. New Auburn also has hillside neighborhoods and steep side streets with good views.”

“This will be a place to attract new investments and residents,” Cousens said. He expects the ongoing development will continue to raise home sale prices, rental rates and residential construction for the first time in decades.

Credit: Courtesy of the city of Auburn

The new phase starting this year, which at $1 million is the largest piece of the municipally funded part of the project, will include a greenway trail, a new road, a retaining wall and seating that will have a small concert space.

The work will include installing utilities, building the road and the foundation for a bell tower and the final landscaping. It will not involve any new structures, Cousens said.

Auburn also is trying to swap land with some business owners to create a more contiguous space for the development.

Holding the river at bay

New Auburn lies across the Bernard Lown Peace Bridge from Auburn near the confluence of the Androscoggin and Little Androscoggin rivers.

The tight-knit community, called Danville until that municipality was annexed by the city of Auburn in 1867, formerly housed shoe mills and French-Canadian immigrants.

A huge fire in 1933 destroyed about 250 structures and left more than 400 families and individuals homeless, according to GrowSmart Maine. Major flooding in 1937 and 1989 damaged significant areas near the river that last summer were backfilled as part of the redevelopment plan.

The New Auburn Master Plan to reclaim flood plain land and rejuvenate the village started as part of the 2010 Auburn Comprehensive Plan, and has been revised several times since to include public comments.

“One benefit of this project is it solves the limitations of building in that area because it moves the floodplain to the end of the riverway walkway,” Cousens said.

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The redevelopment area is between Second and Broad streets and the river. In addition to the new road and walking path, it will include new housing and retail stores.

The city of Auburn is swapping municipal property with land owned by businesses to get a contiguous feel to the redeveloped area, Cousens said. That includes land currently under negotiation and owned by Rolly’s diner, the Fire House Grille and the All About U Salon.

Funding for the project includes $245,000 from the Northern Border Regional Commission, a federal-state economic development collaboration. The rest is from the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forrestry’s Maine Trails Fund, and from local bond money.

“With new value in the district, we will pay off the bond funds,” Cousens said.

Anticipating new business

Kevin Pacheco, owner of the Fire House Grille, said he is talking with the city and could decide on the land swap within the next two weeks. The swap would leave room for his restaurant to expand.

He’s already benefited from the redevelopment, in particular the retaining walls and backfill done last year that took the floodplain closer to the river and away from his restaurant.

“I expect to pick up some business or future exposure once things develop,” he said. “We’ll have a foothold in a newly developed area with the opportunity to expand. That may not have been the case without the New Auburn development. It’s going to be beautiful when it’s done.”

He also likes the street parking the project will add.

Ken Blais has owned Rolly’s diner at the corner of Mill and South Main streets for the past 25 years. By his account, the diner is the place where people come to talk about current events and neighborhood happenings.

The city of Auburn wants to trade part of his garage for land along the walking trail, which will run right behind the diner.

“It’s overdue,” Blais said of the revitalization project. “New Auburn is an area that didn’t get lots of money for redevelopment from the city.”

Credit: Courtesy of the city of Auburn

Auburn already developed its waterfront across from Lewiston with walkways so people can stroll from one side of the river to the other and enjoy events such as the annual hot air balloon festival.

The idea of walking paths and new stores in New Auburn reminds Blais of his youth in Lewiston.

“I used to walk down Lisbon Street in Lewiston when I was a kid and look into the specialized stores,” he said. “I can see people spending the afternoon in New Auburn having lunch, shopping and getting a haircut.”

He added that he hopes the project will attract more investors to the area.

New Auburn is one of the Opportunity Zones chosen by former Gov. Paul LePage that offer federal tax breaks and other benefits to investors.

Other pluses for Blais will be the park and bell tower planned near the diner.

The bell tower will vertically stack four historic bells from the former St. Louis Catholic Church in Auburn. Facing expensive building repairs, the church ended services in 2013 and was sold to investors in 2014 for $75. The investors failed to come up with a viable plan for the church, Cousens said, and the city assumed ownership earlier this year.

The four bells were cast at the famous Paccard Bell Foundry in Annecy, France. They were blessed and raised into the St. Louis Catholic Church’s gothic tower in October 1916.

The foundry is well known because in 1950, the U.S. Department of the Treasury selected it to cast 55 full-sized replicas of the Liberty Bell for each state in the union and the U.S. territories.

Blais describes New Auburn residents as engaged with their community. They have a United New Auburn Association that hosts 10 neighborhood events each year. That includes the Saturday before Halloween, when all local businesses hand out candy and up to 800 people show up for a Halloween event.

“This is a tight-knit community,” Blais said. “It’s walkable and it’s family safe.”