The last structure from the sprawling Edwards Manufacturing Co. mill complex, seen here in August 2021, on Canal Street in Augusta. Developers seek to buy the structure for $1 from the city so they can turn it into a restaurant. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal file

AUGUSTA — Developers working with the city to buy for $1 the last remaining building of the former Edwards Manufacturing Co. complex and redevelop it into a restaurant say they still plan to do so, despite delays and concerns about a risky business plan.

But the developers said they might be making changes to their initial plan to turn the old building into a wine bar and tapas restaurant.

James Bass, a local lawyer, and Tobias Parkhurst, a developer of many downtown buildings, who both helped found downtown Augusta restaurants Cushnoc Brewing Co. and State Lunch, have run into a number of delays.

They said they have had difficulty lining up contractors and having a survey done of the site, which is on the edge of the city-owned, riverfront Mill Park. In addition, their letter of intent signed with the city in August 2021 has expired.

Bass recently told Augusta city councilors the survey is done and developers remain interested in doing the project and are ready to move forward. Bass said the business, however, might not be the Sand Hill Wine & Provisions wine bar and tapas restaurant first proposed.

“(Parkhurst) and I are still very much interested in developing this building — there is a lot of interest there,” Bass told city councilors when they discussed the proposal last week. “The concept started with developing a sort of wine bar and tapas restaurant there. I think that’s still in play, but we’re considering all food options right now. The building itself, as you all know, needs a little bit of work. It’s a great closet for the city right now. We think we can turn that into something really special.”

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Bass said he and Parkhurst are considering making it a lunch and dinner restaurant, a breakfast and lunch cafe or offering other food options.

Most of the city councilors expressed support for the proposal when it went before them in September. They again informally expressed support for it last week, and are expected to consider voting to authorize the city manager to sign a contract with the developers to sell them the two-story, 1,750-square-foot, brick-and-steel structure for $1.

“I’m excited to see this is still something you’re interested in,” said At-Large Councilor Heather Pouliot. “Thank you for staying downtown and for doing some awesome projects in Augusta. I’m very excited about this.”

In 2018, city officials sought proposals to redevelop the building, which has long been vacant and is now used by the city for storage. The city received no interest.

Bass and Parkhurst are asking the city to sell them the building and about a half-acre of land for $1, and provide an eight-year tax increment financing district, or TIF, to help free up funds the developers say they need to bring water and sewer lines to the building, which now has neither.

The developers said the small space would likely limit the restaurant to 49 seats, a business model they said makes the $750,000 to $1.5 million investment they plan to make there a bit risky, with a relatively small cash flow expected.

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Asked by Ward 3 Councilor Mike Michaud whether such a small space can work as a restaurant, Bass said restaurants are located in even smaller spaces in cities, such as Portland and New York.

With creativity, Bass said, “there is enough space.”

He added, “We mapped it out, and there is going to be sufficient space.”

The project, according to Keith Luke, Augusta’s economic development director, would have an estimated assessed value of almost $500,000 and generate new taxable value of $10,300 a year.

Under the expected TIF proposal, the city would return half of those tax proceeds for eight years to the developers, with the eight-year total of funds to be returned estimated at $41,000. Since it is now owned by the city, the property does not generate tax revenue.

The sale to the developers would include almost a half-acre of land where the building sits, on the edge of Mill Park, adjacent to Northern Avenue. The property would revert to the city if the project were not completed in a reasonable amount of time or if the commercial use were discontinued, according to Luke.

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The vacant building is the only mill structure at the former, riverside Edwards Manufacturing complex that is still standing, following a 1989 fire that destroyed the rest of the historic buildings. The two-story, 30-by-60-foot brick building was built between 1910 and 1920 to house transformers that used electricity from the dam to power the mill.

The structure has also been eyed previously as a potential home to a museum honoring the city’s workers, many of whom were Franco American and lived nearby in the Sand Hill area of the city.

Those plans, proposed by the nonprofit group Friends for a Heritage Center at Mill Park, never materialized, due largely to a lack of money and an inability to find grant funding for the idea. The northern end of the downtown area where the site is located, off Northern Avenue, has generally been a part of the city officials want to see revitalized.

The city acquired the 17 acres of what is now Mill Park and the last mill building as part of a deal between the city, state and former owners of the mill that allowed for the removal of Edwards Dam.

The dam previously powered the mill and, until the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ordered it to be removed in 1998, still produced electricity.

At its peak, the Edwards Manufacturing mill employed 1,300.

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