As the president of the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, I was honored to speak at the press conference in Veterans Memorial Park in Lewiston on Oct. 17 commemorating the 45th anniversary of the Clean Water Act of 1972. And I was especially proud to honor fellow Bates College graduate Ed Muskie, sponsor of both the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, which fundamentally established the federal government’s duties to preserve and protect the environment.
I am told by someone who knew Sen. Muskie personally that when asked why he became interested in clean water he responded simply, “I grew up on the banks of the Androscoggin.” For Muskie, it was a challenge rooted in boyhood that he invested decades to see to completion.
I take the same long view with the opportunity before residents of Lewiston and Auburn on Nov. 7 to vote “yes” for the consolidation of the two cities.
Waiting for my turn at the podium at the press conference, I looked at the river and the riverbanks and the investment the two cities have made through the past 45 years since it was mandated by federal legislation to clean up the river. Two questions crossed my mind — would we have made this progress if we had not been forced to do so, and how much more could we have accomplished with riverfront development if we had not followed two independent plans, but one unified plan for private and public investment in parking, housing, retail, hotels, restaurants and open spaces?
Having owned two businesses on the Auburn riverfront, one for 20 years, I am keenly aware that the river binds the two cities and the economy functions as one. Lewiston and Auburn customers and the dollars they spend cross the river without hesitation. Their local tax dollars, however, fund only one city and the schools and public services provided by that municipality.
I have also, during my 39 years as a resident of Lewiston (11 years) and Auburn (28 years), served on numerous planning groups to develop assets that residents have, at one time or another, suggested are desired or needed. One group, LA Excels, which I directed for five years between 1999-2003, hosted “Community Conventions” on several Saturday mornings when hundreds of citizens participated in grassroots planning to name the things they believed would transform the community — a performing arts center, a conference center, downtown housing, public transportation and retail districts.
My job with LA Excels included identifying investors from outside of the community to fund these ideas, and I know of more than one occasion when a potential investor walked away from the table because representatives of the two cities could not present a unified view of where a facility would be located. Both cities advocated for their own self interest to represent their taxpayers. What opportunities have been lost as a result of not seeing value in supporting the other side of the river?
For 39 years I believed in the proposition that just a coordinated approach between the two cities to education, work-force development, urban housing, and public investment to grow the economy would encourage ongoing private investment, both locally and from outside investors. But just hoping for deeper and deeper coordination has not worked.
Like the Clean Water Act that forced officials to clean up the Androscoggin River, city officials need something to obligate them to get to the next level.
The two cities will not be as successful as they can be — and as they deserve to be — if the community has to rely on two city councils every two years to define coordination and collaboration. As one city, the final barrier to defining the collective self interest will be removed. The opportunity will be available to ensure that every child in the schools can get the curriculum they need to follow their aspirations and not be left out of programs currently only offered in one city. And city officials can develop a joint downtown plan that accommodates many styles of housing and retail, parking and open spaces. Everyone can benefit equally.
It is time to take the long view.
Rebecca Swanson Conrad is president of the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.