AUBURN — Now might be the time for the Twin Cities to put aside their differences and start managing the downtown together, councilors from both cities said Monday night at a joint workshop meeting.
“I’m a firm believer in that, so I’d give an instant nod to it,” Lewiston Ward 6 Councilor Mark Cayer said. “I think the struggle will be coming up with a message for it that would be consistent. That, I think, is what’s going to take us some time to develop.”
But everyone wasn’t unanimous about who should be in charge of marshaling the downtown’s future economic development efforts.
Lewiston City Administrator Ed Barrett suggested the Lewiston-Auburn Economic Growth Council could be retooled to fill the task, but Auburn Mayor Jonathan LaBonte said he had some misgivings about doing that.
“To be blunt, a shared downtown manager sitting in a 30-year-old economic development agency is easy, period. Perhaps too easy,” LaBonte said. “I think we have enough smart people in this community that sit on boards and work for joint organizations that I would like to see us do something bleeding edge, that gets at a model where downtown development is going in the 21st century.”
Other city councilors said they had some misgivings about the entire idea. Auburn Ward 1 Councilor Tizz Crowley said she would have preferred to have the discussion center on what the downtown area is, what its boundaries are and opening the floor to ideas from the public.
“Without a full review, an evaluation and a direction, we are now discussing handing over business to places where there is disagreement on the council,” Crowley said. “How can we measure the return on our investment of time and money? Would I support an investment to focus on one downtown? Absolutely yes. But before we get to the end, we need to define our expectations. We need measures, and we need to know the return on our investment we expect.”
Councilors agreed that staffers from both cities would continue developing the idea and report back.
“I’m all in favor of sprucing up the downtown because it will help attract and retain our businesses,” Auburn Ward 4 Councilor David Young said. “I recognize there will be a cost to this. I don’t believe it’s just a reallocation of time among employees. If they just do downtown, they’ll be abandoning something else.”
Monday was the first joint meeting of the year between the two councils. They last met in October to consider economic development downtown, agreeing that both cities’ downtown frontage along the Androscoggin River was valuable and deserved attention.
Barrett and Auburn City Manager Clinton Deschene said they continued those discussions after that October meeting.
Barrett said he presented the idea to representatives from the Lewiston -Auburn Economic Growth Council and they agreed it sounded like a job they could do.
“We would need to spend some time upfront defining clearly specific things that would be undertaken and evaluated over time,” Barrett said.
LaBonte said he was in favor of the idea of a downtown agency but wasn’t sure if the growth council was the best group to do it. He’s been critical of the group in the past, noting that it gets money from Lewiston and Auburn but neither city has much of a say in what it does.
“My long-term concern is that we are not empowering elected officials to have a hand in creating economic development policy,” LaBonte said. “Policy happens on this side of the table.”
Lewiston’s Barrett said it might take too long to create a new agency from scratch that would be up to the job. Auburn at-large Councilor Joshua Shea agreed and said this could be the change the growth council would need.
“It seems like creating this position and seeing if it works, that’s a giant first step in restructuring the agency,” Shea said. “This may be a two-birds-with-one-stone thing. Maybe the LAEGC cannot be re-established in a 21st century model, but we’ll never know as long as we keep sitting here, not trying something.”
Councilors also discussed how they would handle budget requests from joint agencies this year. Last year, each council appointed two members to review the requests and report back. They will likely follow the same process this spring.
Both councils will also consider an idea to meet more regularly, possibly on the fifth weeks of each month. Neither council has regular meetings scheduled those weeks.