May 20—LEWISTON — A plan that's been years in the making to reshape housing in the city was given the green light Thursday.
After a multi-year process to plan and submit its application, and later becoming a finalist, Lewiston will receive a $30 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to overhaul public housing and inject additional private investment into the Tree Streets neighborhood.
The announcement Thursday came first from Maine U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, who earlier this year sent a letter to HUD in support of Lewiston's application. Maine U.S. Sen. Angus King and Congressman Jared Golden, who also sent letters of support, later released a joint statement.
Lewiston will be the first city of its size to receive both the Choice Neighborhoods planning and implementation grants, making the announcement seem surreal to those who have been working on the grant application since 2018.
Misty Parker, Lewiston economic development manager who has worked closely on the grant, said staff was "still processing this very exciting news" on Thursday.
"In a small city like ours, each dollar goes further in improving the lives of people who live and work in our community, and this grant is going to result in over $100 million in private investment in our city, so it's a significant achievement for us that we're just thrilled about."
The city's application, known as the "transformation plan," details a comprehensive effort to redevelop a significant swath of public housing in a downtown Tree Streets neighborhood that includes two of Maine's poorest census tracts, along with the state's highest concentration of childhood lead poisoning.
The proposal includes a 66-unit, mixed-use development on Pine Street, along Kennedy Park, and a 64-unit, family-oriented redevelopment along Pine and Bartlett streets.
A third site will redevelop housing on Ash Street, but the plan also calls for expanded programs related to education, workforce development, health care and other "resources to help families break cycles of poverty." In all, the project will redevelop and construct 185 mixed-income units on three sites that will be controlled by the Lewiston Housing Authority.
"The funding will be transformative for our community," said Mayor Mark Cayer. "I'm hoping it will stabilize our housing market both in the public and private sector, reduce childhood lead poisoning and improve our overall community wellbeing."
Parker said Lewiston's success in getting the grant "is a testament to the work the community has done to develop such a comprehensive transformation plan."
The plan was drafted after a lengthy community-led effort, with several neighborhood residents involved in the Healthy Neighborhoods Planning Council working to engage their neighbors.
A group of neighborhood residents were celebrating the news Thursday at an impromptu gathering at the "pop-up garden" park on Bartlett Street.
Ashley Medina, who served on the planning council, told the Sun Journal that the grant "means everything." Medina grew up in the neighborhood, and saw the consequences of Lewiston's poor housing stock first hand when her home burned down in 2013.
"To see this happen, and to see everybody's hard work manifest itself, it's just everything," she said.
Craig Saddlemire, coordinator of Raise-Op Housing Cooperative, said the grant award "is validation for all the hard work the neighborhood has done to make the transformation plan, to assert a vision that's inclusive of the residents."
He said it "shows a path forward for trying to improve housing conditions in the neighborhood."
Lynnea Hawkins, Healthy Neighborhoods network coordinator and Lewiston School Committee member, said the grant means "we can finally start bringing our city back to where we want it to be." She said that means a city with "housing people want to live in," and a neighborhood that people "want to be out and about in."
Parker said the community worked hard "to submit a competitive proposal that would instill confidence with HUD of our ability to do transformative redevelopment work."
The city's joint application with the Lewiston Housing Authority was a finalist among applications from the cities of Detroit, Michigan, Cleveland, Ohio, Camden, New Jersey, and Fort Myers, Florida.
Parker said once the city signs off on the grant agreement with HUD, the city and its stakeholders will work to establish "detailed work plans."
Actual construction could still be two years or more away, she said. While 70% of the funding is earmarked for the three redevelopment sites, Parker said the projects will still require financing. That job will fall on the Lewiston Housing Authority, and its development partner, Avesta Housing.
Collins said Thursday she spoke directly with HUD leaders about "the monumental impact the project will have on the health, safety, and overall wellbeing of Mainers."
In 2019, she hosted then-HUD Secretary Ben Carson in Lewiston, where they spoke with stakeholders about how the Choice Neighborhoods Grant program could revitalize the neighborhood.
"This $30 million project will transform a neighborhood with the highest concentration of childhood lead poisoning and families in poverty and Maine's lowest performing schools into a lead-free, economically diverse, and welcoming community," she said.
The statement from King and Golden said, "With this substantial investment from the federal government, we can turn that plan into a reality that will remove dangerous lead hazards from housing, address crime, and improve health, broadband access, and educational opportunities for everyone living in Lewiston."
Later on Thursday, Gov. Janet Mills issued a statement congratulating Lewiston. The governor said she walked the Tree Streets neighborhood with Cayer and other city officials earlier this week.
"They told me about how hard the city and its people have been working to revitalize the neighborhood and ensure that all who call it home have a bright future defined by good schools, safe housing, and economic opportunity," she said. "With this transformative federal funding in hand, and with their hard work and ingenuity, that future is on the horizon."
In 2019, grants were awarded to Forth Worth, Texas, Los Angeles, California, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The smallest city among the grantees, Winston-Salem, with a population around 250,000, is still about five times larger than Lewiston.
Since the program was launched in 2009, the smallest city to receive an implementation grant is Newport News, Virginia in 2018. The city has a population of about 180,000.
"Being the first small city to receive something like this, we have a lot to learn," Parker said. "I expect the next few months we'll be really getting everything in order to get this important work started."