BRUNSWICK — Months after receiving partial funding to look into the viability of restoring a historic Maine Street building, the team involved is still searching for money to get the project started.
The Lemont Block, also called the Lemont/Wyler building, a stately brick structure at the corner of Maine and Pleasant streets, was originally owned by the Knights of Pythias. It was purchased 10 years ago by Sylvia Wyler, owner of the eponymous Wyler’s boutique and Local, a specialty foods market.
While Wyler operates her two businesses on the first floor, about 70 percent of the four-story building’s 14,000 square feet is vacant.
The upper floors are likely to stay that way, unless Wyler and her partners can work up a plan to design, and fund, a rehabilitation project that addresses access and life-safety issues, and much-needed interior renovation.
“Without some investment, this is just going to sit like this,” said Mike Lyne, a local developer who has been working with Wyler on the project.
The Lemont Block will be the topic of a panel discussion hosted by the Maine Development Foundation on Wednesday, Jan. 21, from 1-4 p.m. at Curtis Memorial Library in Brunswick.
In June, the Brunswick Development Corp. approved a $15,000 grant for Wyler to fund half a feasibility study for a restoration project.
So far, Wyler and her partners at Maine Preservation, an independent, nonprofit historic preservation organization based in Yarmouth, haven’t been able to come up with the funding to match the BDC grant. But they are still optimistic they will find the money.
“These projects can take some time,” said Greg Paxton, executive director of Maine Preservation. “They’re not easy, or they would have been done already.”
The Wyler team cites at least three benefits of restoring the block: preserving a cornerstone of Maine Street, boosting the town’s tax revenue, and filling empty space with tenants who can give the downtown economy a shot in the arm.
“Once things start happening there, it will trigger improvement up and down Maine Street” said Deborah King, director of the Brunswick Downtown Association.
After a feasibility study is in hand, Wyler intends to apply for historic preservation tax credits from the state to help fund the rehabilitation work.
If all goes as planned, it could be an example of how the public grant from BDC can jump-start a project that would benefit the town at large, Lyne noted.
“We’re trying to find a middle ground where people see that it’s not just one person reaping the benefits of a grant,” Lyne said. “Maine Street reaps the benefits of this building being full.”
But with all its opportunities, the building has some serious challenges.
One serious issue is immediately apparent after walking into the building from a side entrance: a single, steep staircase that reaches up to a warren of rooms on the fourth floor.
There is no way that the staircase, the only access to upper floors, would pass a code enforcement review for accessibility, Lyne said. An elevator would have to be installed, but it is unclear where it could go.
Aside from the basic challenges of getting people into the building, fire control, plumbing and utilities also have to be installed, he said.
A full-scale rehabilitation could cost in the neighborhood of $2 million, he estimated.
The building’s most unique asset, a cavernous second-floor auditorium, with a wrap-around balcony and towering stained-glass windows, is also one of its biggest challenges, Lyne said.
The Knights of Pythias held meetings in the auditorium, but Lyne sees an opportunity for an alternative performance space. The Maine State Music Theater has expressed its support for the project, possibly as an alternate venue to the Pickard Theater on the Bowdoin College campus.
“The first goal is to see if we can reinvent this place for some form of entertainment,” Lyne said.
But transforming the auditorium into a full-time venue could have impacts on other uses for the building, like apartments or office space.
Moreover, the tax credits Wyler plans to use could impose limitations on how much freedom the owner has to change the layout of the rooms inside, Lyne said.
Without the feasibility study, how a potential restoration project might proceed is still an open question. But saving one of the town’s “largest and most significant” historic buildings will be worth the potential time, effort and cost, Paxton said.
“Maine has done a lot of investing in its natural areas, very successfully,” Paxton said. “It has done less investing in its historic downtowns and they are also the key to our future.”
The owner of the Lemont Block on Maine Street in downtown Brunswick is searching for funding to complete a study on the feasability of rehabilitating the 19th-century building.
The Knights of Pythias sign still hangs over the Lemont Block, off Pleasant Street in downtown Brunswick. The owner hopes to restore the upper three floors of the 19th-century building.
Supporters hope to renovate the second-floor auditorium of the Lemont Block on Maine Street in Brunswick into a performance venue.