LEWISTON — Billie-Jayne Cooke was preparing for a wedding in the Agora Grand Events Center in downtown Lewiston Saturday morning when she received a text from the bride.

It wasn’t a last minute request, or a question about the reception hall set-up — it was a photo of half a dozen hypodermic needles scattered on the doorstep of the venue’s side entrance.

Cooke, owner of the Agora Grand and the Inn at the Agora, had walked through those same doors not long before. In a short period of time, she said, a group of people must have come by and gotten high on her doorstep, leaving the syringes and wrappers behind.

The bride was disgusted, she said. For the rest of the afternoon, she heard others sharing negative comments about the neighborhood.

Already that morning Cooke had walked the property at 220 Bates St. picking up trash in preparation for the event. She shooed away two homeless men stashing their belongings in a nook outside the event center and a third man sifting through her dumpster. Fearing the man in the dumpster’s “blurred, belligerent” behavior would escalate, she called 9-1-1.

“I lost (it),” she said. “I was the person that was screaming like a madman at eight o’clock in the morning in the neighborhood.”


Billie-Jayne Cooke stands Thursday afternoon inside the Agora Grand Event Center on Bates Street in Lewiston. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

In the last two years, Cooke said she has seen Lewiston’s downtown steadily decline. She’s cleared tent encampments from her parking lots and taken down trees and bushes to reduce the number of places people can sleep and store their belongings. When someone began picking the lock on one of her doors and sleeping inside the former St. Patrick’s church, she installed a second lock on the inside of the door.

None of it has been enough.

Cooke said she’s seeing more homeless people, drug users, trash and human feces on and near her property now than ever before.

One day, she remembers emergency responders treating someone who had overdosed on the sidewalk near the inn.

“Through this entire thing, I had people checking in,” she said. “That’s every day. That’s commonplace. How is that acceptable?

The inn and event center are located between Bates and Blake streets, directly across from Kennedy Park. It’s not only her business, but also her residence. Cooke lives on the third floor of the inn with her husband and son.


“I will never say that these people don’t deserve help,” she said. “I don’t believe that the answer is just to push them along to be someone else’s problem. But we can’t just ignore them … there’s no place for them to go to get the assistance they need.”

When Cooke purchased the inn and event center in 2018, she said the city had been making efforts to reduce crime in the downtown following the murder of Donald Giusti in Kennedy Park. Through the Peace in the Park Project, a team of trained community volunteers had been patrolling the area at all hours in bright yellow shirts to monitor and de-escalate conflicts as needed.

It was enough to convince her that the neighborhood was getting better, not worse. But it wasn’t long before the program fizzled out.

Now, she said both the city and state are ignoring the growing problem, and business owners like herself are struggling to make ends meet.

“You can talk all you want about attracting new business, but you’re not doing anything to do it,” she said, referring to the city. “And you’re not supporting the businesses that are here.”

The problem isn’t isolated to just Kennedy Park, she said. Homeless people, panhandlers and drug users often make up travelers’ first impression of Lewiston.


“I can almost tell how a guest GPS-directed them here based on the horrified look on their face when they come in the front door,” Cooke said, referring to the drive from I-95 exit 80 through Bartlett Street.

Cooke often hears people blame immigrants for the city’s decline, a position she refutes.

“The immigrants aren’t the ones that are living in my bushes,” she said.

These days, she breathes a sigh of relief when it rains, dampening activity in the downtown.

“You can take a look at Kennedy Park on a sunny day and it’s just filled with overflowing shopping carts, and it’s just ridiculous,” she said. “Who would want to drive past that and come here?”

At times, her clients have the same thoughts.


Some days, Cooke and her staff see cars pull in the driveway and turn around. Five minutes later, they’ll get a phone call with an excuse for canceling their reservation.

She once caught a pair of guests discussing how to back out of their reservations outside the inn on her Nest Doorbell. Ultimately, Cooke convinced them to stay after assuring them that the homeless people wandering nearby would have no use for their kayak.

But the worst advertisement she gets for her business is from Lewiston and Auburn residents, she said.

“I’ve got quite a few guests that Uber here,” Cooke continued. “I can’t think of a single time where an Uber driver has not … scared the (heck) out of them before they dropped them off.”


The problem is twofold, Cooke said. The city is ignoring the issue “without realizing it’s costing us more money than it’s saving us,” she said. She rejected the idea that helping the homeless will draw more people to the area, noting that as a resource center, people are already coming.


She also believes that homelessness is a statewide issue which requires a statewide response. Surrounding communities like Auburn also need to do their part to tackle the problem, she said.

Lewiston’s Director of Marketing and Communications Angelynne Amores said there is no quick fix and that Lewiston is fortunate to be able to work with neighboring communities and local nonprofits on ideas to help the unhoused.

“In Lewiston, we have several shelters although they have rules in which the unhoused choose not to abide,” Amores wrote. “Unfortunately, those rooms go unused. Additionally, we are finding that the unhoused do not wish to take advantage of the resources offered by our Project Support You resource officers. Literally, when the PSY officer offers them services, the majority of the unhoused decline services and do not take advantage of resources.”

This spring, the Lewiston Police Department launched its Neighborhoods First strategy, a “boots on the ground” approach to lower the number of quality of life service calls and respond to “highly visible, minor misbehaviors,” Amores wrote. A number of businesses have opened or will be opening soon in the downtown, from restaurants and breweries to a daycare and new housing developments, she added.

“In this situation with the Agora, our Economic Development team has been facilitating discussions with Agora and its neighbors to not allow the unhoused set up encampments along their property,” Amores wrote. “Also, our team has asked Agora to document each situation with Lewiston Police Department as soon as they arise. When they have reached out to LPD, they have responded.”

Despite frequent cancellations, the inn is doing fine financially, Cooke said. The event center, however, has been financially draining.


On its website, Cooke bills the event center as “a stunning castle-style Maine wedding venue” able to hold wedding ceremonies and receptions under one roof.

There’s numerous reasons why couples choose to hold their wedding at the Agora Grand, Cooke said. Some fall in love with the sweeping architecture of the former church. Others travel from Boston looking for their money to go further. Some come simply because they’re looking for something different.

When the event center holds weddings, Cooke said she isn’t the only one who benefits. By her estimation, every wedding she hosts brings at least $30,000 to hotels, restaurants, vendors and other businesses in the area.

“I have room to have 30 of those weddings a year,” she said. “You do the math and tell me how much income we’re losing. We’re not even talking about mine.”

These days, she’s working on trying to draw other kinds of events in the Agora Grand like meetings, reunions and more.

Yet, Cooke isn’t content to simply complain about the issues plaguing her business. On Thursday, she filed paperwork to run for the Ward 5 City Council seat this November, which is currently held by Laurier Pease.

“Here’s a fact,” she said. “You want to attract business to Lewiston? Then here’s how you do it. Change the first impression of Lewiston.”

Related Headlines

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.