LEWISTON — After polling members and talking internally for months, the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday decided to support the two cities’ merger referendum “to move our region forward.”
“No matter how hard each of us has worked, and no matter how committed we are to change, the fact is we have not made the progress we want on poverty, graduation rates, our image — all things that have an influence on business,” Chamber President Beckie Conrad said in a press announcement.
“I believe we need a catalyst beyond staying the cooperative but separate course and hoping we’ll pick up the pace,” she said. “The merger is the opportunity to drive us. To engage all of the good hearts and minds on both sides of the river to work together across the next decade to realize Lewiston-Auburn’s unique attributes as Maine’s best place to live, work and play.”
In a survey of its members this past summer, 63 percent favored Lewiston and Auburn becoming one city and 15 percent were undecided, according to Conrad. The chamber represents roughly one-third of the businesses in Androscoggin County, according to Department of Labor records.
The announcement in support comes as the two cities are at the height of public debate over the proposed consolidation, which will face voters Nov. 7.
The chamber was the first to organize a public forum on the merger issue, back in June when, Conrad said, it was still in question whether the organization would take an official stance.
The board voted last week after a daylong retreat. Conrad said it considered how a unified approach to schools, workforce development, housing and public investment might be influenced by a merger.
Said Board Chair Robin Robbins: “As part of being a leader in the community we must be innovative as well as recognizing and supporting opportunities that move our region forward.”
Many in support of the merger, including members of the Joint Charter Commission and the One LA campaign, have argued that a merger would help attract and retain more young professionals to address a workforce deficit.
According to Conrad’s news release, a number of chamber members cited “a workforce deficit and fostering a more positive image as pressing needs” at the recent retreat.
Not long after the announcement was made, Jim Howaniec, chairman of the Coalition Opposed to Lewiston-Auburn Consolidation, released a statement on the chamber’s decision.
“The endorsement comes as no surprise, given the close connections between the chamber board and One LA,” he said. “The chamber’s treasurer, Carl Sheline, is co-chairman of the One LA political action committee. It is unfortunate that the LA Chamber of Commerce board of directors has decided to isolate so many of its members by taking sides on such a divisive issue. The chamber has abdicated its opportunity to be a leader and community convener for education and unbiased discussion on the issue.”
One LA issued its own statement as well.
“It is great to have the support of the LA Metro Chamber Board and membership — people who work and live in Lewiston and Auburn,” said campaign co-chairwoman Gabrielle Russell. “We echo the chamber’s message that the future success of Lewiston-Auburn requires us to work together. We’ve seen many positive things happen when the two cities collaborate, and we look forward to helping to forge an even better L-A as one city.”
Conrad said 89 percent of the 1,050 chamber members are from the for-profit sector, 10 percent are from the nonprofit sector and 1 percent from government.
“We all agreed,” Conrad said, “that Lewiston and Auburn are one economy. Business does not stop on the bridges and in all actuality our greatest strength is that the community functions as a large regional economic engine for central Maine.”
According to 2016 Maine Department of Labor statistics, the L-A metro area has about 3,000 private-sector employer establishments. That number includes multiple locations of some businesses.
The next public forum on the merger is scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 3, put on by Uplift LA at the Dolard and Priscilla Gendron Franco Center.