Wednesday, December 13, 2006

L/A on the move

I’ve been blogging for nearly three years, beginning my first blog/website, in March of 2004. One thing I wished I had done was archive some of the posts from my first website and blog.

Over this period, I’ve had certain themes that have cycled through my writing, with an emphasis on the people and places of Maine. Readers who are familiar with my blogging remember previous posts about the Lewiston I remember from my childhood, especially the downtown shopping district and the hustle and bustle that once existed on Lisbon Street.

Many who reside south of this former textile center, continue to discount Lewiston’s renaissance. I’m announcing here that you do so at your peril. This morning’s article in the Lewiston Sun Journal, about a husband and wife team looking to open a new restaurant directly downtown should make anyone with a lick of sense—or at least, an understanding of economic development signals, take notice. When young professionals start moving into an area, you know vitality and activity are certain to follow.

Since the Sun-Journal requires registration to view archived articles, I’m posting it here for your reading pleasure. What seemed merely a pipe dream a decade ago, seems to be in its formative stages.

Fueling a passion
By Carol Coultas , Business Writer
Lewiston Sun Journal
Wednesday, December 13, 2006

When Eric and Carrie Agren looked inside the old Lyceum Hall on Lisbon Street they had to get past an inch of black gunk on every surface to visualize what their new home and business would look like.

Once a grand theater with a 1,000-seat capacity, the upstairs of the 135-year-old building hadn't been used for more than 50 years.

"It was a disaster," said Eric Agren, shaking his head at the memory.

That's changed.

The Agrens have rehabbed the entire second floor - about 5,000 square feet - into a stunning home. Light from the handsome arcade windows at both ends of the living space bounces off the restored original floors, brick and plaster walls and tin and coffered ceilings. Downstairs, a similar treatment is under way on space that will house Fuel, a French bistro restaurant that the couple hopes to launch in February.

Next to Fuel is about 850 square feet of revitalized storefront space, whose mystery tenant will be revealed at a 10 a.m. news conference today.

It's all very exciting for Agren, who is returning to his roots by participating in its renaissance.

"I think it shows people we have things to be proud of," said Agren, a member of the appliance store family.

"It's connected to that creative economy idea - that you can renovate a building, live here, open a restaurant here - that there are beautiful things downtown."

Before returning to Maine last year, Agren lived in Chicago for six years, in the 19th story of a high-rise apartment building. He is sales director for Jade Products Co., which designs high-end kitchens for clients like Bobby Flay, Emeril and the Bellagio Hotel. His contact with terrific chefs developed into cooking internships, which he expanded with professional culinary training.

Although he and Carrie, who hails from Louisville, Ky., loved Chicago, he wanted to return home to friends and family and pursue a dream he'd been nurturing for years: to open his own restaurant.

In Portland, he thought.

But the progress he saw in Lewiston and Auburn impressed him, and he decided to consider an L-A location. Once he compared the property prices, that was it.The Agrens bought 43 and 49 Lisbon St. last year. Crews from Zachau Construction worked in earnest for four months to get the living space ready for the couple, who moved in about a month ago.

The renovation preserves much of the original character of the old theater. Gleaming wainscoting remains in the long hallways, and original doors and windows from the theater's reception area and offices are used throughout. A ladies room sign on the pantry door, delicately etched in glass, remains a whimsical nod to the building's past.The home has a guest room, master bedroom, master bath, guest bath, fitness room (with sauna), den, sitting room, living room, walk-in closet and, of course, a centerpiece kitchen, anchored with a 16-burner Waldorf cooking suite.

"It's where people congregate anyway, so we wanted to make sure there was room for everyone," said Carrie of the spacious layout.

Living above the space where you'll be working makes for an easy commute: down one flight of 6-foot-wide stairs. Some day, the Agrens would like to rehab the third and fourth floors of the building - especially the top floor, which has spectacular views of the river, the falls and Auburn, and at the other end, the basilica and downtown Lewiston.

But first, Fuel.

Eric Agren said the menu will feature a mix of country French fare - think braised short ribs and pork chops with macaroni and cheese - not the fancy Parisian dishes no one can pronounce. And despite its upscale features (free valet parking, a wine bar with more than 100 selections) entrees will be priced in the $12 to $20 range, including sides.

"We wanted to be competitive with the other restaurants," he said. "I think we're right in line with them."

He politely declined to reveal how much they spent on renovating the building, but figures the outcome speaks for itself.

"Let's just say we're heavily invested in the downtown," he said with a smile. "I truly believe this is an opportunity for Lisbon Street to continue to grow."


weasel said...

Oh man, that makes me happy. When I moved here 12 years ago Lsbon St was porno shops and drinking clubs. All power to them!

Jim said...

It is pretty amazing what's been happening on Lisbon St., particularly the last five years.

Your description of the area a decade ago was spot on.

There are still issues/challenges for Lewiston/Auburn, which I'll probably write about at some later point.

Rikki said...

Funny, I was just chatting about developments in Lewiston with a fellow about two hours ago. He was touting the work done in planning a Greenway biking trail along the banks of the Androscoggin as I strive for a similar path in Rockland. I'm glad to see developments that continue to vindicate my suspicion that L/A will continue to become a destination for economic developers and the like.

Although, it would be nice if one Lisbon St. pawn shop and one adult book store was preserved ... you know, for nostalgia sake. We owe it to our children. Or something.

Anonymous said...

I was so happy to stumble upon this article. I am excited for the opening of a nice higher end restaurant in this area. I wish more "nice" places would open up, along with specialty shops and stores like the Whole Foods down in Portland. It would be great not to have to travel out of Lewiston/Auburn to enjoy the provisions that these places offer.