LEWISTON, Maine — A mill that once employed 6,000 workers and supplied textiles to Union Army soldiers during the Civil War — but has sat empty for almost two decades — is on the brink of being repurposed with three new tenants that could bring about 200 jobs to Lewiston.
Thomas Platz, whose affiliate company owns most of the 1.2 million-square-foot Bates Mill Complex, said he is close to buying Bates Mill No. 5 from the city of Lewiston and has three tenants ready to sign leases. That would create jobs, attract new businesses to Lewiston and give the city a new tax base.
“I am talking with three individual companies that will use a total of 175,000 square feet. We’re meeting regularly, and I’m looking to sign them to be on board before the first of the year,” said Platz, who is a principal at Auburn-based design and architecture firm Platz Associates. “We’re starting to lay out spaces in the mill.”
With common areas added in, the three would use 190,000 square feet, more than half the 350,000-square-foot space in Bates Mill No. 5. Platz said each of the two floors in the building occupies the equivalent of 4 acres of space.
“When we start this project it will be one of the largest commercial projects in Maine in quite awhile,” he said. “It’s 3 ½ times the size of the new WEX headquarters.”
The four-story WEX headquarters in Portland occupies 100,000 square feet. Last fall the city of Portland approved construction of a 170,000-square-foot headquarters building for animal health company Covetrus.
The Bates Mill No. 5 space will lease for about $200 per square foot.
Platz said all three of the companies he is ready to sign are Maine-based and are either expanding or moving their current locations.
“They’re going to be excited to talk about it,” said Platz, who expects to hold a press conference with the forthcoming tenants early next year.
He would not disclose the names of the companies and said only that they are not manufacturers. The Auburn YWCA has expressed interest in relocating to the building, he said.
Platz also wants to restore the number of jobs in the Bates Mill Complex to the 6,000 it employed during its heyday. About 2,200 people work there now, but he expects about 3,000 before the end of 2020.
Redevelopment of the building will include replacing windows on its side and in the saw-toothed roof panels.
“We’ve looked at putting in solar panels,” Platz said, since the roof is optimal for that technology.
He expects the project to be completed within three years, including one year of design and 14 months of construction. Environmental remediation work is about to start on the mill.
Platz estimates there will be upward of 300 construction jobs to be filled during the project.
The project could go before the Lewiston planning board by the middle of next year, he said.
Unusual features of Bates Mill No. 5, such as its open concept and plentiful structural pillars, have proven a challenge for developers and a source of desired features for potential occupants.
“Mill No. 5 is the last significant mill in the complex,” said Misty Parker, economic development manager for Lewiston. “It is the most unique in its shape and size. It was the first concrete and steel mill in the state.”
Mill No. 5 was designed by industrial architect Albert Kahn, who pioneered the use of reinforced concrete in buildings to replace wood. The building’s distinctive roof stands out against the Lewiston skyline with its long series of saw-toothed windows that let in natural light and ventilation.
“It was one of the first fireproof buildings [in the state] because it was made of concrete instead of wood,” said Gabrielle Russell, an architect at Platz Associates who has been an advocate for restoring Mill No. 5.
She said Bates Mill No. 5 is one of the more interesting spaces in the mill complex. Its Jacquard looms produced bedspreads that sold worldwide.
Platz said he may keep a room with three turbines that used to power the mill as a feature.
The city of Lewiston took over the Bates Mill Complex in 1992 because the mill’s former owner could no longer pay the property taxes.
Lewiston taxpayers in 1993 approved redeveloping rather than demolishing the Bates Mill Complex, which stretches from Chestnut to Main streets along the Androscoggin River.
The Lewiston Mill Redevelopment Corp. was formed to hash out redevelopment plans. It consisted of elected officials, private citizens and city staff. That organization hired Platz Associates in 1996 for design services and to help redevelop the mill spaces.
Platz subsequently formed Bates Mill LLC and bought most of the mill, with the exception of Bates Mill No. 5, from the city in 2004 and began redevelopment.
Platz has had an option to purchase and develop Bates Mill No. 5 that ends in February 2020.
“If nothing is done the option will expire and the building would be available to anyone,” Parker said. “The city could demolish it or put it on the open market.”
Estimates put demolishing Bates Mill No. 5 at $3.1 million or higher.
Part of the challenge with Bates Mill No. 5 is that it needs extensive environmental remediation to rid it of asbestos, lead paint and pentachlorophenyl, or PCP, which is used as a disinfectant and pesticide. The cleanup could cost upward of $1.3 million, Parker said.
In June the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency granted Lewiston a $500,000 Brownfields cleanup grant to eliminate environmental hazards in Bates Mill No. 5. Parker said the funds will be available this month, but the city still needs to source funds to cover the remaining costs.
Filling out the other mills
Much of the Bates Mill Complex is bustling with businesses already. Among companies located there are TD Bank, Cross Insurance, Maine Community Health Options, Baxter Brewing, E. Claire and Pastries, and Italian restaurant DaVinci’s.
Platz said Bates Mills 3, 6, 7 and 2, with the wing and storehouse, already are full.
Bates Mill No. 6 houses Grand Rounds, a fast-growing health services company headquartered in San Francisco. The company, which has 22,150 square feet in Bates Mill No. 6, said it will add another 46,900 square feet in Bates Mill No. 1. That would triple its space in the mill complex, giving it room to double its employee count for the second time since it is located in Maine three years ago.
Bates Mill No. 2, which has residential housing, is half full. But Platz said he expects to sign a lease within the next four weeks with a Boston company to locate in that mill in August 2020.
He’s also talking to a Midwest technology company to locate either Mill No. 1 or Mill No. 6 and add 100 local jobs.
One advantage Platz sees for companies locating to the mills is that there is parking available.
And while his firm has stuck to industrial development so far, he is considering a residential project given the shortage of housing for new employees in Lewiston.
“It’s harder to build new market-rate housing for professionals,” Platz said. “We’d need to get $1,600 to $2,000 a month in rent, which is tough around here.”
He said Grand Rounds had told him that finding housing for its burgeoning workforce has been tough, especially in the downtown area.
“We might do an 8-10 unit building,” he said. “We’re looking to see what sites are available.”