Lewiston-Auburn merger: Would one city mean more economic activity?

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LEWISTON — Phil Nadeau, the former longtime deputy city administrator of Lewiston, sat down in front of a group of people last week and talked about “the greater possibilities for our two cities.”

Nadeau, who retired this year, has recently been one of the most outspoken supporters of the proposed consolidation, and he’s thinking big.

“If you take the assets of both cities and package them, it would be powerful,” he said during the One LA event. 

One of the central questions that has riled both campaigns and caused debate among residents leading up to Nov. 7 has been whether increased economic development would result from a merger.

Believers in One LA say one government would allow for a single economic vision, and would streamline efforts to market the cities to new people while eliminating competition between them. 

Clifton Greim, president of Harriman Architects + Engineers, joined Nadeau for the recent conversation. “At the end of it, we’re a sales team,” Greim said. 

They believe the better product is the two cities combined. 

Others aren’t convinced that simply combining two populations would suddenly attract new businesses and residents. Members of the Coalition Opposed to Lewiston-Auburn Consolidation have continually rebuffed the argument that the two cities actively compete for new businesses. 

Auburn Mayor Jonathan LaBonte, who is finishing his tenure after nearly six years at Auburn Hall, said, “The notion that the two cities are competing for economic development is nonsense,” going so far as to call the argument “a paid talking point by pro-merger donors.” 

He gave a recent example: When Rainbow Bicycles made the move from outer Center Street in Auburn to downtown Lisbon Street in Lewiston, LaBonte said he “championed the move as a win for both cities, as the walk-able, bike-able downtown we are trying to build supports such a move.”

He continued, “When Kassbohrer, the winter recreation equipment company, saw the need to expand and diversify into training and chose to partner with Lost Valley for a new location, both cities should also celebrate that as a sustainable, place-based move.” 

Since Androscoggin County is one labor pool, he added, a new business is going to set up shop where it makes most sense. He said existing businesses aren’t shopping around to either city for tax incentives.

Nadeau said people such as Chip Morrison, a member of the Joint Charter Commission and the former Auburn city manager, as well as other leaders saw the need for consolidation a long time ago when the two cities were still reeling from the downswing of the two major mill industries. 

Nadeau said the existing relationship between the cities is “something we take for granted, like this just naturally happens between two cities,” he said. Over the years, he said partnerships between the cities have helped, but there would be much more potential under a consolidated government.

Morrison said the relationship between the cities, which used to garner productive results, “has unraveled in the last five years.” 

He said where there used to be successful joint marketing campaigns, including “the cities of the Androscoggin” jingle, now the cities are not working together to promote themselves. 

Morrison, an Auburn resident, said he thinks there’s a correlation between the lack of collaboration and the declining property values in his city. 

“The economy is rebounding, but it’s not rebounding in Lewiston-Auburn,” he said. 

Nadeau said the concept of joint economic development, which the cities had with the Lewiston-Auburn Economic Growth Council until last year, was recognized statewide, but that it was a tremendous amount of work to sustain. Nadeau argued that under one city, officials could use the time that’s been spent on sustaining joint relationships on producing more results for the local economy. 

“I don’t know what the future holds in store for communities of our size, when we’re up against the economic forces we’re against,” he said. 

The fizzling of the growth council has also been debated extensively, and seems to almost represent the central philosophical differences separating the two campaigns. 

Morrison said he couldn’t picture each city having its own marketing campaign, which he said would be essentially working against one another. 

Nadeau believes consolidating the cities, with their diversity of urban and rural areas, puts “an entirely different face on who we are, and how we begin to brand ourselves. You’re talking about a single community, and you’re talking about yourselves that way.” 

Bob Stone, an Auburn city councilor who faced off against Morrison during one of the merger debates, said that in his experience in two years on the council, he can’t think of any “competitive instance” between the cities involving economic development.

“There was always a healthy respect between the two cities,” Stone said. “When Denis D’Auteuil (the former assistant city manager of Auburn) was hired on in Lewiston, we were pleased for him, for example.”  

He added, “Not once did Auburn try to block business going to Lewiston in any way. A win for Lewiston is a win for Auburn, and vice versa. I think the (Joint Charter Commission’s) claims of competition are egregious and ignorant.”

Stone said Auburn’s issues have been more focused on what he called the “alphabet agencies,” such as the Auburn Business Development Corp., which he said “look like they will survive any merger.”

LaBonte agreed that some streamlining ought to take place. But he said it doesn’t require a merger. 

“To foster growth, both cities need to commit to eliminating some of the alphabet soup to make it easier for existing and prospective businesses to get the support they need,” he said.

LaBonte added that a merger looks inward rather than into the parts of Maine that are thriving.

“Auburn and Lewiston should proactively engage with the Portland region on workforce development, transportation and housing solutions; we have much to offer,” he said. “Insulating our community from one of New England’s fastest-growing regions has not helped and never will.” 

Nadeau said the two cities will continue to see the federal and state funding they used to receive diminish. More and more resources will have to come from local taxpayers, he said. 

He believes that if the cities merged, that mere fact would attract interest and new people. 

“Businesses look for innovation,” Morrison said. 

In talking with Greim leading up to the event, Nadeau said businesspeople, even outside the area, “love this idea” of the merger. 

“They understand what’s going on in the economy,” Nadeau said. 

Morrison said he’s seen another “frightening transition” over the years, in which people who have solid employment and solid incomes are moving away. 

“We need economic development that brings people to live here and work here,” he said. 

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