LEWISTON — In a freewheeling panel discussion on everything from image and workforce to just how great those Great Falls are, Twin Cities mayors agreed Thursday that Lewiston and Auburn have challenges to meet.
Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque told a packed house at the monthly Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce breakfast that his city needs more people, more development and a high school that stands out in New England.
He was careful to call them challenges, not problems — part of the barrier locally is attitude, Levesque said.
“Someone told me a long time ago there’s an attitude in Lewiston-Auburn that stems from being an immigrant community, being an industrial, blue-collar community, that they were told over and over by the mill supervisors that they will never amount to anything,” Levesque said. “They’ll just work six days a week, then retire and in six months, die, ‘but don’t worry, you’ll have a watch in your casket.’ As soon as we realize that that’s not true, and you look in the mirror and say, ‘Lewiston-Auburn’s great,’ that’s when it starts changing.”
Lewiston Mayor Shane Bouchard said his city needs to revitalize some residential neighborhoods, fight generational poverty, get people off welfare and figure out immigrants’ barriers to entering the workforce.
Bouchard said he often travels for work, sometimes out of state, and “people ask, ‘Where are you from?’ You say, ‘Lewiston,’ and some of them just back away. The image here is terrible. For those of us who live here, we’ve all chosen to be here and we all know it’s B.S., right?”
He’d like to work on beautification around the canals, bringing rail to the Twin Cities and improving regional bus service.
“It may not work, but we’re going to fail if we don’t try,” Bouchard said.
Levesque said he’d recently read a 1964 study about Auburn that talked about needing to conserve land and protect agricultural zones because the population in 2004 was projected to grow to 40,000 people. It’s at about 23,000 now.
“Workforce development starts with workforce. We need more people,” Levesque said. “When we have more people here, more economic activity happens. More retail, more service sector.”
Manufacturers aren’t going to consider the area if the population is stagnant, he said.
Chamber President Beckie Conrad said the 2017 survey of chamber business owners flagged available workforce and local image as two areas of concern. The chamber has strategic plans to work on both in 2018.
She also highlighted the new tourism effort and asked the mayors about local assets.
Lewiston’s assets, Levesque said, include a rich history in textiles, manufacturing and sports. Auburn, he said, is rich in vibrant neighborhoods and outdoor activity.
Peter Rubins, active in Grow L+A, asked the mayors why they hadn’t mentioned the Great Falls as an asset and why the community didn’t celebrate it more during the spring runoffs that set the falls roaring.
Levesque said it was a little early to talk about, but that the falls had been on his mind, as has what Providence, Rhode Island, has done with its waterfront.
“They do a light show, fireworks, illuminations,” he said. “We (Levesque and city staff) weren’t ready quite yet to talk with our partners in Lewiston, but yes, from the Auburn side, we’re talking about it. We’re probably going to have it as an agenda point at the next joint (city) council meeting, which we’re shooting for February.”
Bouchard agreed, though he seemed surprised at hearing about the Auburn effort for the first time.
“I also agree that the falls are an incredible asset to the community,” he said. “I grew up in Rumford, so this little trickle of water doesn’t really count as great falls to me. So I think that in some ways we overstate some of our assets, but it’s definitely something that we can leverage. It’s marketing. I’m willing to talk to Auburn, thanks for bringing us in, nice to know. We own most of it. We’ll look forward to leveraging our ‘great’ falls.”
Lewiston Mayor Shane Bouchard, left, and Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque share a laugh with Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce President Beckie Conrad during the chamber breakfast at the Ramada Conference Center in Lewiston on Thursday. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)