Growth council takes center stage

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LEWISTON – Twenty-five years ago people thought officials in Lewiston and Auburn were nuts for agreeing to share the costs and the tax revenue of new developments, regardless of where the projects were located.

Last night those same officials were vindicated. More than 400 people gathered in Bates College’s Gray Athletic Building to celebrate the silver anniversary of the Lewiston-Auburn Economic Growth Council, the collaborative engine that has driven the area’s economic success.

“Those officials were heroes,” said Chip Morrison, president of the local Chamber of Commerce and city manager of Auburn at the time of the growth council’s creation. He then ticked off the names of the city councilors and mayors of 1981, the “true pioneers” who laid the foundation for the cities’ combined progress by agreeing to work together rather than against each other.

Called (sometimes derisively) the “Peter and Paul Show” for Mayors Paul Dionne and Peter Whitmore who led the effort, it was “an arrangement unheard of anywhere in this country,” said Morrison.

Twenty-five years later, it’s still an arrangement that benefits the area, credited with bringing more than $500 million in new investment to the cities since 2000. Among those who took the dais to sing the LAEGC’s praises were Gov. John Baldacci, former Gov. Angus King and keynote speaker, former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell.

“I came here often,” said Mitchell of his many visits during the 15 years he served in the U.S. Senate. “And I can say from the bottom of my heart, nowhere was I treated as warmly and with as much friendship as here in these two great cities. I feel as if I’m home this evening.”

Mitchell, whose private foundation provides scholarships to a graduating senior from every one of Maine’s public high schools, drew the connection between education and prosperity. What’s happened in L-A – the combination of “energy, optimism and determination” – provides opportunity for everyone.

“People universally need and want opportunity,” he said. “Without opportunity there is no hope. Without hope, there can be no progress. We have to constantly continue the search for jobs, opportunities and hope for our young people.”

He also gave credit to Lucien Gosselin, executive director of the LAEGC, who is widely recognized as the organization’s godfather. When asked by a passer-by why he was at the event last night, Mitchell quipped, “For 25 years I’ve been doing what Lucien Gosselin told me to do.

“Look where I’ve gotten,” he said smiling. “Why should I change now?”

King, who entertained the audience with a poem entitled “Ode to L-A,” received a standing ovation for his prose and wit, including a stanza that honored Tambrands: “Although not a user, I’m still among your fans.”

The evening was punctuated with video clips that traced the history of the LAEGC and its many achievements in the context of world events. Clips of the wedding of Princess Diana and Prince Charles, President Reagan and “Cheers” were sprinkled with images of the 1987 Androscoggin River flood and the growth council’s “The Right Move” campaign. A much younger David Lettermen put Ray Geiger of Geiger Bros. through his paces on “Late Night.”

In the ’90s, there were balloon festival and ice storm images sprinkled with O.J. Simpson trial clips and stills from local business start-ups such as RF Technologies and Diamond Phoenix and the bankruptcy of Bates Mill.

The new century brought images of the Maineiacs, Wal-Mart Distribution Center, Gateway projects and downtown renovations. Future projects such as the Bates Mill convention center, Island Point Project and Museum L-A flashed on screen.

“As Lewiston grows, Maine grows,” said Baldacci. “It is happening here.”

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