While great progress has been made attracting businesses back to renovated mills downtown, many people still remember the days when families could spend an afternoon shopping on Lisbon Street, going out to dance, and even getting a drink. Many large forces—the advent of malls, big box retail, and online shopping—caused those stores and that way of life to end. But nearby cities like Portland and Burlington demonstrate that it’s possible to recreate the joys of this kind of downtown in modern times.
While a wide array of items can be purchased online or in a big box store, many things still cannot, particularly if they are unique products offered by local, independent businesses. Examples on Lisbon Street already include specialty stores like Rainbow Bicycle, the Vault, and many Somali-owned grocers, all of whom offer products that cannot be purchased easily elsewhere. They also help create a sense of community among their customers, whether it’s launching a Saturday bike ride, appreciating a new wine purchase, or a place to watch a soccer game in the afternoon.
Yet even with those examples, all of us can agree that Lisbon Street still has not quite come back to the way it used to be. And while we should be supportive of commercial projects all over the city, as outlined by the comprehensive plan, the riverfront island master plan, and the redevelopment of Mill Number Five, the five blocks from Main Street to Walnut Street are the most important symbolic stretch of our entire city. If we had two or three more retailers, no more vacant lots, and a form-based code ensuring beautiful aesthetics, we could probably reach a tipping point of revitalization. And once those four blocks reached their tipping point, it’s easy to imagine the effects spreading quickly: more people wanting to live and invest all over our city.
We are currently in a good spot to make a big move. The last vacant lot in that stretch, on the Pine Street to Ash Street block, will be filled in with new apartments, likely with space open for retailers on the first floor. The commercial revolving loan fund from the city also has a strong balance, approximately half a million dollars, to make available in low interest loans.
To that end, we should seize this opportunity by:
- Targeting the full commercial loan fund balance to the revitalization of the first blocks of Lisbon Street to: 1) attract 3 more retailers, and 2) facilitate exterior improvements necessary to comply with form-based code for the existing buildings. The commercial revolving loan funds are unique because they are the main source of investment the city can direct to small businesses. While large businesses can negotiate tax increment financing agreements, small businesses often must fit their project into the cookie-cutter terms. That’s why we should triple the size of the loan that can be given out (from $50k to $150k), and make clear that the terms of the loan can be flexible, based on a staff recommendation, approved by Council.
- Establish a form-based code for these blocks. Freeport looks the way it does because its code is not based on what goes on inside buildings (industrial/commercial/residential, etc.), but rather the aesthetics of how the neighborhood should look. We can make the first four blocks of Lisbon Street much more appealing, with a few key interventions.
Again, there’s much that we can be doing to ensure that businesses thrive across Lewiston. But every city has one street that becomes symbolically known for its vitality. If we can get Lisbon Street over that hump of total revitalization, it will leverage benefits for everywhere else.