LEWISTON, Maine — James Mangrum talks about Bates Mill No. 5 in grand terms, as a reflection of “a lost era of productivity” and a “torch that’s being passed from one generation of leadership to another.”

The Rhode Island man who wrote his architecture school thesis on finding a new use for the mill is part of a group that’s met weekly since fall, quietly trying to form a plan to save the 100-year-old brick lady. And not just to save — to see it thrive again.

There is some urgency.

In February, city officials plan to ask the City Council for roughly $2.5 million to knock it down.

“To lose the building would mean that everyone forgets the past and the future,” Mangrum said.

It’s time to let it go, City Administrator Ed Barrett said. Probably past time.

“This has been something the community has debated and argued over for how long?” asked Barrett. “It’s been such a major issue that to some extent it’s distracted everybody from what else could happen.”

The massive, saw-tooth-roofed building, two floors of 145,000 square feet each, was designed by architect Albert Kahn. It once housed 1,200 workers making 60,000 bedspreads per week. Lewiston has owned the tax-acquired property since 1992. The looms inside stopped in 2001. It’s been a question mark since, saved from the wrecking ball once before in 2009.

Earlier this year, Gabrielle Russell, a vocal mill supporter, bought Kahn’s firm’s original plans, hand-drawn on linen, and hung them as an art display at Kimball Street Studios at 191 Lisbon St. She connected with Mangrum through a Sun Journal reader project.

Last fall the newspaper invited readers to submit ideas for Bates Mill No. 5, if they could wave a wand and make it so. Russell was intrigued by Mangrum’s thesis: turn it into a computer server farm on the first floor. Heat from computers would help support an actual farm on the second.

In class this fall, a dozen Bates College students studied how to make that happen, if it could happen.

“What are the energy demands of server farms?” said Jane Costlow, a professor of environmental studies who co-taught with Associate Professor Holly Ewing. “How many micromoles of light does it take to grow lettuce? People are tired. At some point, decisions are going to have to be made, so what can we gather that will help people make those decisions?”

They have some answers. The new nonprofit Grow L+A, formed by Russell, Mangrum and others, is calling the project Five2Farm. The group’s still refining its pitch.

Barrett says the city is willing to listen.

But no promises.

City’s plans, negotiations

In May, Barrett called the mill a “psychic burden on the community” that needed a resolution, stay or go. In the Riverfront Island Master Plan adopted by the City Council, the answer is “go.” That vision calls for Bates Mill No. 5 to be replaced by two buildings, one along Main Street and one on Lincoln, with green space between.

“One of the things I think the riverfront planning process was good at was getting everybody to come to grips with Mill 5 and the reality of Mill 5,” Barrett said. “[Report author Goody Clancy] basically said, given the cost, given the design, it’s just not a very useful building.”

Fill it with people and make it, for example, a large bank building, and it would require the city to build another parking garage, he said. There’s only one nearby spot left for that, Island Point, prime real estate Lewiston wants to see developed, and not as a parking garage.

Urban planners from Boston-based Goody Clancy estimated it would cost $20 million to stabilize the exterior for redevelopment.

“I think that opened a lot of eyes,” said Lincoln Jeffers, Lewiston’s economic and community development director. “Having somebody that was international brought more credibility to it. There were people who had historically been on the fence of ‘this needs to stay’ who came over.”

Barrett’s impression: City councilors are ready to tear it down as soon as possible.

Why they haven’t: Lewiston doesn’t own the entire building. There’s a hitch with five turbines in the basement. The turbines, inactive for years, are part of the canal system and owned by NextEra Energy.

Negotiations between the city and NEE, formerly Florida Power and Light, fell apart earlier this year and have since resumed. Jeffers said that before the city assumes ownership of the turbines, it must ensure it isn’t liable if industrial contaminates are discovered, leftover from the manufacturing heyday.

“I think both parties would like to get this done, but the city does not want to take on unexpected, extraordinary cleanup costs,” he said.

There’s been an initial environmental assessment. A second will take place soon to determine what, if anything, is down there.

“I am looking for resolution, one way or another, no later than this spring,” Jeffers said.

If the city doesn’t take over the turbines, it will revisit the idea of knocking down most of the mill and walling up the turbines. (Viewing the building from Longley Bridge, the turbines are on the far right side.)

Barrett plans to submit the demolition request for consideration in the city’s Capital Improvement Plan in February. City councilors could change their minds, he said. But that next use would have to be compatible, feasible and paid for.

Grow L+A wants to approach the city with money lined up, Russell said.

“We’ve been cultivating investors,” she said. “There’s some very good potential.”

Complex questions

For now, ideas are tentative, with thoughts of reshaping the mill into an “urban food hub.” That could involve small farms and local vendors or computer servers and topsoil. Grow L+A is keeping the Riverfront Island plan in mind, wanting to fit in and not fight against the city’s larger goals, architect Noel Smith said.

The group is approaching the mill in sections. It’s daunting to take on the whole building, and that may have been a stumbling block in the past, said Kevin Morissette, another member of Grow L+A.

Members are braced for skeptics, yet optimistic.

“It hasn’t been an academic exercise,” Smith said. “Big things don’t happen unless somebody has the vision to make it happen.”

“We know there are a lot of people who just see that building as a symbol of the industrial past that they want to get by,” he said. “We actually think it could be a symbol of revival in this community. There’s a ton of brick buildings out there; there’s been very few like this.”

Dividing up Mangrum’s thesis, 12 Bates students researched energy use, the feasibility of a food hub and how to grow food inside the building.

“They have certainly discovered that it’s a whole lot more complicated than it might [appear],” Costlow said. “At first you think, ‘Of course, we want to keep the mill, we want to keep it standing,’ then as you get into it you realize just how many complex questions there are.”

Their work will appear online in January on the Androscoggin River Portal.

Mangrum made the 3½-hour drive up from Rhode Island in mid-December to hear students’ presentations. His mother-in-law lives in Durham. That’s how he met Mill No. 5.

He believes the first floor would work for a server farm, which typically consumes half of its energy keeping the computers cool. Mangrum finished his thesis and initial research in 2009.

“We figure you can get 87 percent free cooling just from the outside air, not having to run compressors and chillers, and then taking whatever is left over and using it, as opposed to [expelling] it to the atmosphere. That hasn’t been done anywhere, especially in an urban farming concept,” he said.

“The mill is this box that houses machines and it’s connected to the river,” Mangrum said. “The question was: how to maintain that idea in the 21st century. The translation was: retooling the machines from the Jacquard looms to the data farms.”

He’ll make the drive again whenever Grow L+A makes its pitch. They haven’t yet asked for an audience with the City Council. The group meets from 5:30 to 7 p.m. most Wednesdays at Kimball Street Studios. The public is welcome.

“The sentiment of the council, and my mother-in-law included, is the expectation is for us to show up with some open checkbooks,” Mangrum said. “I think that the checkbooks would really like to see some fundamentals before they go to that length and we’re putting those together now. But I don’t see a dearth of checkbooks in the area, nor do I think there’s some sort of time crunch which is going to prohibit the business plan from coming together.”

Barrett said there isn’t a solid demolition time line. Negotiations with NextEra Energy have to wrap up and the council has to approve the funds, which will be a public process.

“It’s pretty clear this council is committed to a resolution on Mill 5 in their term in office, so we’ve got a year,” he said.