March 10, 2010

Cowan Mill fire proof of changing times

Investing In

— AUGUSTA — ''That's history burning!'' The caption accompanying the photo of fierce flames consuming Lewiston's Cowan Mill painfully captured the place of historic mill buildings on the Maine landscape.

The tragic fire elicits powerful memories and exerts influence not only over the past and present, but the future as well. The Cowan Mill was built in 1845 and supported generations of Maine immigrant families, first as a cotton mill and later as a woolen mill and shoe factory.

It had a lot going for it, even today: its location, with water on three sides, was outstanding; its Greek Revival architecture added distinctive character for all to enjoy; and its listing on the National Register of Historic Places made it eligible for federal and Maine tax credits and attractive for redevelopment. It is a tragic loss.

One need only look to the mill complexes in Pawtucket, R.I., Salem, Mass., and Burlington, Vt., to see how a long-term commitment to the re-use of historic assets can help transform small cities. Rehabilitation and re-use of portions of the Bates Mill complex has created a continuing success story in Lewiston, now home to TD Banknorth and Androscoggin Savings Bank offices, several restaurants, and Museum L-A.

Redevelopment of the Fort Andross and Pejepscot Paper mill buildings along the Androscoggin River in Brunswick and Topsham underlie knowledge-based and creative economy development in the midcoast.

Mill buildings were at the very center of Maine's industrial revolution. The Bates Mill served as Maine's largest employer through the 1960s, and early profits from it provided the initial capital for Bates College. It is fitting that this facility and others like it are being redeveloped so they may again lead our economy forward.

The shift from manufacture of commodity products like textiles and shoes to new businesses based on skilled people and attractive places is crucial to our economic future.

According to the Department of Labor, the Maine work force is expected to stop growing after 2012. If we are to grow, we must keep all the talent we have and attract new people as well. We need skilled workers for our boatbuilding, metal-working, health care, research and development, tourism and other industries that today face critical shortages.

We need visitors and second-home owners to contribute to our economy, entrepreneurs to start new businesses and retirees to contribute their values and talents to our civic life.

To attract skilled workers, visitors, entrepreneurs, and retirees, we must compete with other states. What Maine has to offer is picturesque downtowns, lively arts and culture, strong communities and a beautiful and accessible natural environment.

To compete and grow, we have to invest in these ''quality of place'' assets. Now is the time to upgrade, redevelop and sustain our best assets to ensure economic prosperity in the future. Gov. Baldacci's Quality of Place job creation and investment strategy aims to do just this.

Its goal is to build economic opportunity and new jobs upon Maine's outstanding, place-based assets, including our working landscapes, historic downtowns, the arts and culture, nature and heritage-based tourism, outdoor recreation and leisure and their related physical infrastructure and work force development.

Last spring the governor announced ''Mobilize Maine,'' a three-year effort to engage citizens in identifying the most promising assets for investment in every part of the state. The effort is coordinated by the six federally designated regional Economic Development Districts.

Work on the Mobilize Maine project has just begun in the Androscoggin and Kennebec Valley regions, where citizens will help identify key assets for investment and develop a strategy for building the economy of each region. To find out more about Mobilize Maine, contact AVCOG at 783-9186.

A related initiative is legislation proposed by GrowSmart Maine and approved by the Legislature for a $5 million bond to support ''Communities for Maine's Future,'' to be presented to the voters in June 2010.

If passed, the funds will be used to make strategic capital investments in Maine's historic downtowns, village centers and Main Street corridors- boosting local economies while protecting and enhancing the special character of our towns and cities.

It will also enable the purchase of endangered historic structures while private developers are found to plan and finance their effective re-use.

The fire at the Cowan Mill reminds us once again that times have changed. Instead of waiting for the next big manufacturer to arrive, we need now to invest in our downtowns, cultural and historic assets, working farms and forests, tourism and outdoor recreation and the skills of our workers to build the new economy.

By investing in and building on what we now have, our outstanding natural and built assets will become drivers of the new Maine economy.

— Special to the Telegram

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