In this August 2019 file photo, Corrina Tancrede helps paint background colors for a new mural on the front of Webb's Market on Pine Street in Lewiston. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Lewiston became the smallest city to win a competitive $30 million federal grant to revitalize its downtown and transform housing in Maine’s poorest neighborhood, according to U.S. Sen. Susan Collins.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grant will help the state’s second-largest city and its co-applicant nonprofit, Community Concepts, implement an urban development plan that aims to increase the amount of safe, affordable housing in the downtown and improve the economic and social wellbeing for the area’s residents.

“I truly believe this is going to be transformational for our community,” Lewiston Mayor Mark Cayer said. “I believe it’s going to reduce childhood lead poisoning, provide safer housing and stabilize our housing market here, which will benefit not only the public housing sector but the private sector as well.”

The award is an acknowledgement of the dire housing situation in downtown Lewiston. The area contains three of the state’s four poorest census tracts, based on the 2010 census, and its children are twice as likely to be poisoned by lead because of their old housing than elsewhere in the state. The Bangor Daily News chronicled the impact of the downtown’s housing affordability and quality crisis on tenants and landlords in a series of stories in 2019.

The grant also represents the biggest investment yet in an ongoing effort to transform the neighborhood. The plan calls for a 66-unit mixed-income apartment building along the downtown’s Kennedy Park as well as 64 units spread across multifamily buildings around Bartlett and Pine Streets. Half of the units will be considered affordable, according to the plan, which was developed with input from more than 400 residents over a year and a half. It can be read online here.

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Lewiston is the smallest city to ever receive an implementation grant from the CHOICE Neighborhood program, which launched in 2010. The city was selected out of 20 applicants that were then narrowed down to five finalists, which included Detroit, Cleveland, Camden, New Jersey and Fort Myers, Florida. It is not yet clear how many of the finalists were awarded grants.

But the grant’s impact on Lewiston will be greater than it would be on other cities, said Shawn Yardley, CEO of Community Concepts.

“When you put $30 million in Cleveland, not to put them down, but you’re talking about a building on a block,” Yardley said. “We’re talking about the whole downtown and a whole neighborhood.”

To apply for the grant, Lewiston created a 250-page plan with the help of resident input, said Ashley Medin, the president of Healthy Neighborhoods, a downtown community group.

“It wasn’t people that don’t live here who said ‘we want this to happen,” Medina said. “It was really community and resident-driven.”

The plan centers on creating new housing, but it also contains health, education, safety and workforce development initiatives and proposals.

“By taking a holistic approach to housing, people, and community, this project will redevelop the Tree Streets neighborhood and provide residents with new educational and career resources to help families break cycles of poverty,” Collins said.

In March 2019, Collins visited Lewiston with former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson and met with residents. Cayer, a Democrat, praised Collins for championing Lewiston’s application, noting that “without Senator Collins, I doubt we would have had the Secretary [of Housing and Urban Development] visit Lewiston.”

The grant was the product of nearly a decade of organizing by local residents, said Misti Parker, Lewiston’s economic development manager who coordinated the development of the city’s transformation plan.

The city has not yet learned when the funds will be released, Parker said.

“We are a little bit shocked and very excited and still learning more about what comes next for us as a grantee,” Parker said.

Callie Ferguson

Callie Ferguson is an investigative reporter for the Bangor Daily News. She writes about criminal justice, police and housing.