By Jonathan P. LaBonte
Mayor of Auburn
It has been a little over a year since the city joined a group of Chinese investors at Auburn Hall to announce a $40 million project to rehabilitate the former Lunn Sweet shoe shop (The Barn building) into a residential and hospitality center serving medical patients.
The company, Miracle Enterprises, also acquired a number of adjacent properties, including the former police station on Minot Avenue.
While there was quick work to secure the building with fencing, board up broken windows and secure the roof, a number of residents have asked if the lack of further movement has meant the project was dead. It is far from dead, but most of the work since the announcement last summer has been on the developer’s side as they build their business plan and coordinate a strategy to secure investors. And for a project this complex, that takes time.
On the city side, it hasn’t been fully published what we have verbally committed to do. While there is no formal joint development agreement, assurances were given first by city staff and then by the Auburn City Council that the city would invest in improvements to Minot Avenue and into their site.
Not dissimilar to efforts like the Bates Mill redevelopment in Lewiston or projects on Saco Island in York County, taking Industrial Revolution-era buildings and re-purposing them to function as part of a city’s downtown takes street, sidewalk and parking improvements. For the Lunn-Sweet building, that means looking to move utilities underground,
adding sidewalks, improving car access into the site and accommodating
Since neither the city, nor this or previous potential developers of this building, have ever studied and designed improvements, it is unclear what the total bill could be. Some projections put the cost at $5 million to $6 million, depending on how much blasting may have to be done to extend South Goff Street (the street behind the former police station) all the way back to Elm Street.
It is in the city’s best interest to continue to stay focused on determining what improvements are “needs” versus “wants” and then seeking other non- local dollars to fund the improvements. For example, meetings have been hosted with both the federal Economic Development Administration and MaineDOT to seek partnerships that could reduce city commitments by more than 50 percent. Those partnerships would include the engineering and design work that must be done first.
Would it make sense to destroy a long-time city park (ELF Woods) and school-connected trail (Snake Trail) to extend and connect a street on ledge if it’s not really needed for the project? Shouldn’t the public and our local students have a
chance to weigh in on potentially losing the aesthetics of this park for a road to nowhere?
Given the traffic counts on Minot Avenue, and the likely traffic generated if this project functions more like a hotel than an office building, we could be able to save the trails and perhaps even improve them as part of this effort.
Let’s hope we can obtain reports from city management soon about their progress securing those public
partnerships and pursuing designs that protect city assets.
On the medical services front, we have continued to hear positive news about the leadership of Central Maine Healthcare and their research into service models and how to accommodate cultural and other barriers to serving foreign patients.
Auburn community is not only fortunate to have two regional hospitals based here, but the relationship of Central Maine Healthcare with MassGeneral in
Boston is supporting research into our medical tourism development, as well as improving patient care locally.
The city rarely finds itself in the middle of the business planning for large developments, leaving that to the investor and their financing partners or banks. Protections for any public partnership rely on demonstration of financing and a legal commitment to investment to a certain threshold in the city.
Foreign investment in our community is one of many ways we can grow our economy, even if it is a more rare form. And we should ensure that the prospects of foreign investors don’t distract from the everyday work we should be doing in support of existing, local small businesses.
If you have any questions on this project, please don’t hesitate to reach out and I will help you find answers, if they are available. I can be reached at email@example.com.