AUBURN — City councilors on Saturday called for more focus on industrial and retail development, possibly by creating development and arts agencies to help promote the city.
“I can guarantee you, the system is broken,” Mayor Jonathan LaBonte said. “I know from people I talk to at the federal level and the state level how ineffective we are on a number of fronts.”
The discussion at Central Maine Community College was part of the city’s pre-budget goal-setting day, moderated by strategic planning consultant Carole Martin of Rockland.
Martin asked City Manager Clinton Deschene, Assistant City Manager Howard Kroll and councilors to talk about their vision for Auburn in 10 years and how to start working toward that vision within the next year. After a lunch break, she brought them back to discuss how to reach those goals, focusing especially on making their meetings and workshops run more effectively.
Councilors sketched out an optimistic vision for the city in 2023, calling for an open and inviting city with plenty of safe, walkable routes through comfortable neighborhoods. The city would be run by a stable, respectable municipal government.
“I’m looking for the experience, that feeling of Auburn,” Councilor Tizz Crowley said. “We’ve all had places we’ve traveled to that we’ve loved. When you think about it, it’s not the greatest view of the ocean or the most unique castle or the greatest food. It’s the feeling that place gave you.”
To get there, councilors said they wanted to focus on three goals: optimizing economic development within the city, promoting community safety and doing a better job of communicating what the city has to offer.
LaBonte said he wanted to pry the job of promoting economic development away from regional groups such as the Lewiston-Auburn Economic Growth Council, the Auburn Business Development Corp. and the Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments.
He pointed to the southern part of the city as one place that has too many agencies involved — including the Auburn-Lewiston Municipal Airport, the Auburn Business Development Corp., the growth council, AVCOG and the neighboring town of Poland.
“Nothing about that is efficient or effective,” LaBonte said. “Do we really need that number of agencies with their own independent staff?”
He called for replacing those groups with a single entity that would be controlled by the City Council.
“A port authority or a redevelopment authority would have all of those things bundled up into one,” LaBonte said.
Deschene said he recognized that Lewiston and Auburn’s fates are tied together, but Auburn must establish its own identity.
“I think, Lewiston, we have to work more with them,” the city manager said. “But we need a sibling rivalry, which can be very healthy. There can be a great sibling rivalry, and I think right now it’s not used. There can be a sense of maliciousness to it that neither of us talks about. Neither knows exactly what’s making the other one mad.”
Councilor Robert Hayes agreed that Auburn should focus on its own economic development, but he added a word of caution.
“We still need a regional context, a Lewiston-Auburn context and an Auburn-only context,” he said. “There is a need for a collective group.”
Crowley said her main concern was community safety, specifically relating to traffic, automobile speed and sidewalks.
“I want to have a habitable downtown, and part of that is making it safe to walk,” Crowley said. “If it’s not safe because the sidewalks are not safe, that’s what I’d like to see addressed.”
The second part of the meeting was a discussion of how to make the council’s meetings and workshops more effective. One suggestion was to have councilors focus on their jobs as a group, as opposed to their individual desires.
“Council meetings are a meeting of the corporate body amongst itself,” LaBonte said. “I think that because of the way we sit, facing an audience and TV cameras, there is an immediate turn to a TV show, and you are there to perform for an audience. A council report or committee report changes from an opportunity to check in to more of a chance to give a speech.”
Instead of giving long-winded reports on potentially mundane topics at council meetings, councilors will try to write their reports and submit them to the city manager before their regular meetings. They can be released to the public and accepted into the record, and councilors can discuss important matters at the regular meetings.