LEWISTON — As a Portlander, Joshua Shea failed.
Metro, the magazine he created for Casco Bay readers in 2003, went belly-up after nine months. The rookie publisher hadn't figured out how to sell ads or run a small company. And he says the city seemed to care little for a 20-something entrepreneur.
"I wasn't welcomed by the chamber of commerce," Shea said. "I couldn't have gotten anybody from City Hall on the phone. It was one of those places where everybody looked at you suspiciously. It didn't feel like anybody was rooting for us."
But in Lewiston-Auburn, Shea is a success.
In April 2010, he published his first issue of Lewiston Auburn Magazine. The following April, he kicked off the Lewiston Auburn Film Festival. Seven months later, the Lewiston native was elected to the Auburn City Council.
Shea, 36, is part of a wave of young leaders in the community that has suddenly emerged in government and business.
Among them are 31-year-old Jonathan LaBonte, executive director of the Androscoggin Land Trust and Auburn's youngest mayor; Michael Dostie, 29, manager of J. Dostie Jewelers and the architect of Art Walk Lewiston Auburn; Hillary Dow, 33, director of marketing and business development at an Auburn accounting firm and a leader within a half-dozen local nonprofit groups; and Craig Saddlemire, 29, a local activist and filmmaker who serves on the Lewiston City Council.
In a community where so many of the faces in business and civic life are in their 40s, 50s and 60s, these young people and others are signaling a changing of the guard.
"I don't think it was anything that was planned," Shea said. "I think that there was a whole bunch of us who, just by coincidence, ended up in positions of influence."
That so many emerged at the same time — and all are acquainted — is perhaps more interesting.
"You'd almost think we have secret meetings from some Bat Cave-like complex," Shea joked.
But while Shea and the others say coincidence had a hand, the cities had a role too. Property in L-A costs less to buy or rent than in other urban areas in Maine, they say. And inclusion in government and civic groups is relatively easy.
"Here in Lewiston-Auburn, you can be somebody sitting at the table right away," Shea said.
Guiding young professionals
That's what Dow found.
"I think that there is tons and tons and tons of opportunity," said Dow, who came here in 2008. "You just need to be willing to step forward and say, 'Yes, I want to be involved.'"
She, like LaBonte, Shea and Dostie, found help in YPLAA, Young Professionals of the Lewiston-Auburn Area.
The chamber of commerce program was created in 2007 by some folks in their 20s and 30s who wanted to share their stories along with their business cards.
Dow soon became the group's chairwoman.
"I think that it's a great way for young professionals to have a peer group that they can reach out to," said Dow, who grew up in Kingfield. The free-to-join group runs fundraisers and contests, such as an annual video game competition and cleanup days at Thorncrag Nature Sanctuary in Lewiston. They have annual awards and dinners.
But more importantly, they talk.
Much of it is informal. Though she is no longer its chairwoman, Dow often gives new members a call. They talk about where to shop or hike. They may talk about the inaccuracies in the community's reputation ("Yes, there is a lot to do here!" Dow insists).
They also have chances to wade into weighty matters.
At LaBonte's insistence, YPLAA created a Policy Committee.
"Now, once a month, a group of young professionals get together and talk about the issues of the day," LaBonte said. "It's been really exciting. To have half a dozen or a dozen young professionals who are interested in the future of the community, that's powerful stuff.
"It can be challenging," said LaBonte, who grew up in New Auburn. "Local government isn't as accessible as people think it could or should be. And people are often afraid to weigh in. They don't understand the mechanics. So being able to engage young people through those issues is great."
Learning about community
Not everyone's path has been the same.
Saddlemire, who grew up in Albany, N.Y, was a Bates College student who had no desire to venture off campus.
"I was very comfortable in the bubble," said the film studies and psychology major. "From freshman to junior year, I was quite happy to focus on books and class discussion and theory as the primary source of my education."
In his senior year, that changed.
A friend drew the soft-spoken Saddlemire into a project that recycled bicycles off campus. That work introduced him to the downtown neighborhood and the "Visible Community" initiative, which was working to be noticed by city leaders. People there became subjects in Saddlemire's student films and, eventually, became friends and neighbors.
"For the first year, I was really the guy who videotapes," he said. "Eventually, I became a member like everyone else."
He reluctantly ran for City Council, in part to pay a debt. When Visible Community member Tina O'Connell was nearing the end of her first term on the Lewiston City Council, Saddlemire made her a deal: Serve another term and he'd run in her place.
"I spent two years trying to think of a good excuse to not run," he said. "I was intimidated by the idea. I thought Tina overcame a lot of barriers to perform a public service. I will embarrass myself at times, say something stupid or make a mistake that everyone's going to remember. But if I can represent my constituents well or bring ideas to the table that are valuable to the community, then it's worth those other things."
Saddlemire, who doesn't own a car, has become a particularly strong voice for making the downtown friendly to pedestrians and bicyclists.
He might never enjoy the attention, though.
"I'm not necessarily someone who enjoys the spotlight," he said. "I make movies and enjoy putting those in the spotlight."
A cycnic's view
Dostie is also a reluctant leader. He vows never to enter politics. Rather, he became involved in the community out of a feeling of responsibility.
At 24, he took over management of his family business — J. Dostie Jewelers — and moved into the third floor of his downtown building.
"I was hearing a lot of people saying, 'Oh, this was a great place for young people to come. This is a great place for young people to start a family,'" he said. "And I couldn't disagree more when I came here. Yes, we've got a beautiful river. And yes, we've got beautiful trails."
But there were few places that a young professional wanted to hang out after work, he said. The restaurants Fish Bones and Fuel had yet to open. Gritty McDuff's had opened in Auburn, but it was alone.
"When I first moved back to Lewiston, I moved here because of family business," Dostie said. As a kid, he split his time between Harpswell and Lewiston. "There was no other reason for me to ever even visit Lewiston, let alone live here."
He joined YPLAA and began plotting his contribution. And he did it from a realist's perspective.
"I'm constantly tying to find balance," he said. "The people who say, 'Lewiston sucks' and 'It's the armpit of Maine' are wrong. At the same time, so are the people who say, 'I don't understand what people are complaining about. Lewiston has everything you could possible want.'"
That's particularly true when compared to Portland.
"Stand in the middle of our downtown and list all of the businesses you can walk to in five minutes," he said. "Do the same thing in the Old Port in Portland. And then, tell me we even hold a candle to them."
It was the starting place for Art Walk Lewiston Auburn.
Once a month from May through September, the downtowns are turned into arts districts for a night, with businesses and vacant buildings acting as galleries and exhibit spaces. The next one is scheduled for June 29.
In dealing with the walk, the cynic becomes an optimist.
"When we started a year ago, I was the only one who was surprised that we didn't get more people," said Dostie, who co-chairs the effort. "People were hoping for 75 to 100."
Instead, they drew a crowd of 402.
"I was expecting 500," Dostie said.
Finally, they're here
It's the kind of optimism that a former young leader loves.
"I am so excited about the change of guard that's happening," said Rachel Desgrosseilliers, 67. "I think it's wonderful."
And it's about time.
When she was 29 — the same age as Dostie and Saddlemire — she was the top administrator at St. Mary's Regional Medical Center.
"I was the youngest CEO of a hospital in the state, which was a black mark against me," said Desgrosseilliers, now the executive director of Museum L-A. "I was one of two women that were in charge of a major health institution in the state, another black mark. And I was a nun. Most people had the idea of a nun being mild, meek and timid, you know?" she said. "And that wasn't me."
She and a group of young people found themselves in leadership roles just as Lewiston-Auburn's identity as a mill community was being shaken with layoffs and closures.
"It was not an easy time," she said. But she forged ahead. "I was young, so I had the impatience of youth."
She sees some of herself in the new group of young leaders.
"I tell them, 'Hey, go for it,'" Desgrosseilliers said. "I don't like the words 'never' or 'can't'. I look at them and say, 'I'm looking forward to having someone to take over.'"
Former Auburn Mayor Lee Young figures part of the reason the new class of leaders seems so extraordinary is that a generation of people seemed to have sneaked past.
"There's this intense group of people from my era, who grew up from families that believed you needed to participate in your community," said Young, 72. "Then, there's another group — those people who are 45 to 60 years old — I don't know where they went."
Few seem to be involved.
"Now, you've got this young crowd that's 20 to 35 that's popping up that's really strong and they've got really strong ideas about how things ought to be," she said. "And I think that's wonderful."
She even played a small role in LaBonte's rise.
When he was still in college, he asked to meet with the then-mayor.
"I'm not sure what I told him," she said. "I probably applauded his desire to be involved and informed. It was more of a motherly conversation."
To LaBonte, the fact that the meeting could happen at all seemed to make his own participation more possible.
"I sat with Lee Young, just to pick her brain about how things came together," he said. "I was just curious, from her perspective, how she made it happen."
So far, it's worked.
"I just love making a difference," LaBonte said. "You get involved, and you see good things happen."