AUBURN — A committee of Lewiston and Auburn city councilors would oversee a new economic development effort, according to a plan presented by Mayor Jonathan LaBonte on Monday night.
The economic development effort would focus on two areas. In one area, the city would develop a Lewiston-Auburn Port Authority to promote industrial- and transportation-themed projects.
"We can come up with a fancier name if we want," LaBonte said at an Auburn City Council workshop. "But let's assert ourselves as a port, and let's organize ourselves to focus on industrial and transportation development as a port."
A downtown and small business authority would focus on bringing in new business to the Twin Cities riverfront area.
"We have a significant number of storefronts that are empty and some focused efforts around recruiting businesses that could fit there, or helping to rehab those is a skill set we could benefit from, just as much as Lewiston," LaBonte said.
LaBonte said both ideas grew out of January's joint meeting between the Lewiston and Auburn councils. He and Auburn Manager Clinton Deschene have been working on the plan since that meeting.
LaBonte stressed that Monday's discussion was just the first in what he hoped would become a communitywide debate about the role of economic development and the Twin Cities' best method to promote it.
"There is a lot of massaging to be done, but we can start looking at how we can manage our work plans around those two functional areas," LaBonte said.
The changes would address one of LaBonte's biggest concerns, giving elected officials a say in how new development is pursued and promoted. Councilors have very little say in what the Lewiston-Auburn Economic Growth Council, the Lewiston Development Corporation, the Auburn Business Development Corporation, the Lewiston-Auburn Railroad and the Auburn-Lewiston Municipal Airport do.
The cities do have significant assets — access to the Maine Turnpike, the St. Lawrence & Atlantic Railroad and Auburn's busy freight airport make the cities a genuine hub for industry and transportation. That includes the industrial parks in both cities, Auburn's Foreign Trade Zone and the Wal-Mart Distribution Center in Lewiston.
A dedicated port authority would give potential investors a single point of contact in the Twin Cities.
"Right now, we have a handful of different entities that operate around industrial development and transportation with no management structure," LaBonte said. "In conversations I've had with state officials, especially with respect to getting capital investment from the state, they don't know who the person is they should speak with. They want to know who they should call."
He proposed having Lucien Gosselin, president of the growth council, act as director of the port authority.
A group focused on the downtown would go beyond planning events.
"I think there is an opportunity for Lewiston-Auburn to create a high-level position that could help building owners, investors and small businesses structure deals," LaBonte said.
Councilors said they looked forward to the discussion.
"I think there are going to be a lot of people tomorrow morning, for whom the current system works, that will be absolutely tearing this apart and trashing it," Councilor Joshua Shea said. "But it's amazing how many people it really doesn't work for when you get them behind closed doors."
Councilors also said they liked a proposed reorganization of the Economic Development, Planning and Assessing departments.
Economic Development Director Roland Miller would be in charge of the combined Community Planning and Development department. Planning Director Eric Cousens would serve as deputy director.
Community Development Director Reine Mynahan and Assessor Renee LaChapelle would work under them, along with an assistant planner and an economic development specialist.