GARDINER — Cobbossee Stream served as an industrial hub for two centuries, first fueling lumber and grist mills, and later paper mills and manufacturers.
Now many see the dilapidated paper mills along the stream and other industrial remnants as a blight on the city.
City officials who have long wanted to revitalize the area known as the Cobbossee Corridor scored a victory last week when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency awarded the city $400,000 in grants to evaluate the area for possible contaminants.
Nate Rudy, economic and community development director for the city, said officials are concerned that the years of industrial use in the area have left a host of contaminants that may discourage development.
“What we’re hoping this will do is give us some clear guidance on the health of the Cobbossee Stream,” Rudy said, “and help us make, maybe destigmatize, the stream as a destination location or recreational resource for people in Gardiner and the surrounding communities.”
The city applied for the two $200,000 grants for a hazardous material assessment and a petroleum assessment.
Rudy said the city would seek additional funding to clean up the areas if contaminants are found.
The EPA awards grants to assess, clean and redevelop what it calls brownfields — property where expansion, redevelopment or reuse may be “complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant or contaminant.”
Rudy said he’ll know more about the timeline of the process after he returns from a conference on brownfields required by the grant.
The city finalized a master plan in 2005 for the area around the stream stretching from New Mills to the Kennebec River. The plan called for commercial, residential and mixed-use development, as well as a walking trail and open public space.
It also called for using brownfields funds to clean up old, contaminated sites to demonstrate responsibility for past mistakes by industry.
The city developed an initial engineering and design report in 2009 with a grant from the Maine Department of Transportation for a pedestrian and bicycle trail along the stream that would connect with the Kennebec River Rail Trail in the Hannaford parking lot.
City Manager Scott Morelli said the DOT awarded the city a grant several years ago to pay for 80 percent of the trail cost, but the city has been unable to come up with the remaining $150,000 to $200,000.
“As great of a project it would be, coming up with $200,000 is extremely difficult,” Morelli said.
“It is something on everyone’s mind and is something we hope to get to sooner rather than later,” he added.
City Councilor Robert Logan Johnston said he thinks it’s terrific that the city will be able to use the brownfields grants to make progress on the corridor master plan.
“Winning a grant like that is always a real blessing for the city, simply because there are a lot of people out there looking at these grants to help them, especially in older cities like ours,” Johnston said.
Jay Robbins, a historical consultant out of Richmond, said there are very few streams anywhere that had such a density of industrial structures.
“It’s really a rare history,” he said.
Robbins researched the history of the stream for the corridor’s master plan.
He said he was impressed by the beauty of the area when he first walked down to the stream for his research, examining some of the remnants of the eight mills that once stood there.
“To me, that’s much stronger than even the rail trail in potential impact,” Robbins said.
Paul Koenig — 621-5663