Lewiston-Auburn merger: It's not so easy to classify each side

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Despite the support of many Twin Cities business leaders and Gov. Paul LePage, there is widespread skepticism about a proposal to merge the cities of Lewiston and Auburn into one municipality.

“A lot of people are wicked upset” at the idea, said Lewiston resident Mike Long, who doesn’t share their concerns.

Supporters say the plan, which is on the Nov. 7 ballot, would turn the two cities into an economic and political powerhouse, at least by Maine standards, and save millions through greater efficiency. Critics, though, express doubt.

While opponents — ordinary residents and anti-merger spokespeople alike — offer a range of reasons for their stance, including misguided savings projections, racial concerns and the supposedly odd financing of parking garages, there’s one concern that pops up time and again: that business elites are trying to jam something through to help themselves, not ordinary people.

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“We didn’t ask for this debate,” said James Howaniec, an attorney and former mayor of Lewiston who is chairman of the Coalition to Oppose Lewiston-Auburn Consolidation. “It was thrust upon us” by “a very small group of people” who strike many as arrogant or condescending.

“There has never been any type of grass-roots support for this,” Howaniec said, merely “a top-down” push that isn’t resonating with a public that resents having to deal with the issue.

Pro-merger leader Gene Geiger responded to the notion at a debate Thursday night saying that for about 25 years, “A whole lot of people have been involved in this effort from all walks of life and all financial positions. This isn’t something a handful of people are trying to shove down the throats of the community.”

He went on: “Whoever is involved in this is trying to make the community better. This is not something that is going to benefit me or any other single individual.”

Driving around in both cities, signs opposing the merger vastly outnumber those favoring it – and hundreds more anti-merger signs are going up soon. Signs, however, are often a poor measure of what’s really happening.

With no public polls on the issue and no known political scientists on the ground trying to make sense of the battle, nobody can say with any assurance that one side or the other is a sure winner. But it’s tough to find ordinary voters who like the idea when many critics of it won’t speak on the record because they fret that taking a public stand might upset their boss, landlord, family or customers.

Lewiston’s Amy James said she has “no problem” with the merger, but added that “most of my friends hate it.”

“Nobody around here wants one city,” said Patty Freeman of Lewiston, who said she doesn’t care which way it goes.

Yet Gloria Boston of Lewiston said the proposal is merely common sense.

“You want to put ’em together? It is together. It is smack together already,” Boston said. With only a bridge separating them, she said, people might as well recognize reality.

Howaniec said there’s no liberal versus conservative division on the issue, no young versus old, no Republican versus Democrat. It’s simply an elite group of supporters versus nearly everyone else, he said.

Geiger, who is chairman of the Lewiston-Auburn Joint Charter Commission, said opponents worry too much about change. “They like what’s familiar,” he said.

“The world is changing like crazy in front of us,” and approaching it “the same old way” isn’t going to work, he said. The community won’t survive on doughnut shops in a high-tech world that requires a skilled workforce and streamlined government, Geiger said.

“I fear what’s coming if we don’t change,” Geiger said. He said the cities are approaching “a crossroads” and if they choose to go on as is, “our course is clear for the next decade, generation, maybe forever.”

Matt Leonard, a former president of the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce who is active with the coalition opposing the merger, said the reality is that the interests of business owners are different from those of voters who aren’t invested in the issue despite decades of discussion about the merger option.

Bob Stone, a council member in Auburn who opposes the merger, said that for every hundred opponents of the merger, there may be 50 different reasons they cite for their position. But, he said, it boils down to “ingrained stuff” that has long divided two communities with a shared past.

Stone said that back in the post-World War II years, the rivalry between Auburn and Lewiston was so extreme that on days when their high school football teams used to meet on the gridiron, fans would line up against each other on a bridge that separates the towns.

On that span over the Androscoggin River, Stone said, the less-than-neighborly brawlers would have their own “battle on the bridge.”

Something of that old competition still exists, he said.

Geiger called the cities “two little kingdoms separated by a moat,” the river they share. He said they would have more clout if they combined than if they cling to the past and pretend they can pull up a drawbridge to isolate themselves.

LePage, whose office ignored a request for an interview, recently had lunch at DaVinci’s Eatery in Lewiston with leaders of both sides. They said he urged them to endorse the merger, insisting that a new joint city could drive economic development not just locally but for the entire state.

Repeating comments he’s made in public in the past, LePage told them that parochial concerns of opponents ought to give way to an embrace of a better future.

That position, however, doesn’t seem to sway even those who typically back the governor.

At an Auburn GOP meeting recently, with plenty of business oriented Republicans present, nearly 20 party leaders indicated they won’t vote for the merger. Only one endorsed the notion.

Several political candidates who have been going to door-to-door said they’re mostly hearing skepticism about the proposal.

Stone, a Republican, said the governor ought to stop meddling in a local election whose details he hasn’t mastered. He said he told LePage to steer clear in a friendly, private session at the Blaine House the day after the DaVinci’s gathering.

Leonard said those pushing for the merger have pushed a particular narrative for decades: that uniting the two cities will make them stronger.

That notion, Leonard said, has served as “a stranglehold” on the community that’s had the unfortunate consequence of crowding out the pursuit of other ideas that would accomplish more.

“We can achieve great things without the merger,” Leonard said.

Geiger said he finds it interesting “how hardened” the positions on the merger have already become, which may not bode well for the outcome of the vote.

“People feel disappointed in promises made by anybody,” he said. “People have been disappointed. They’re angry. They don’t trust authority figures.”

More and more, Geiger said, “there’s a notion that collaboration isn’t possible or even wise, so people take a position and hold to it,” sometimes with a harsh tone that makes it hard to hash out what’s best during public debate.

From Geiger’s vantage point, there’s almost a desperation to try something new — and soon.

There are “enormous problems” looming, he said, with the number of workforce-age Mainers “falling off the table” and demographics looking dire across the state.

“It’s as if a hurricane was bearing down on us,” Geiger said. “We may not know if the winds will howl at 100 miles per hour or 140 miles per hour, but they’re blowing. And they’re coming.”

At this point, people need to choose whether they are going to toast the storm at a bar with buddies or to huddle with friends and make a plan “to come out in good order” when the winds die down, Geiger said.

Leonard said the cities have a great deal going for them as is, without a merger, including a growing student population and an energetic young workforce that doesn’t exist anywhere else in Maine. The cities also have 238 miles of fiber optic cable already laid that could become the backbone for economic development tied to companies that rely on technology.

Leonard said the Twin Cities, as Lewiston and Auburn are sometimes called, are like twins. They’re not the same, he said, they’re just related. Arising from the same background and looking somewhat alike, each has a distinct personality with differing needs and wants, Leonard said.

Instead of papering over those differences, he said, it would be better to use them to spur growth on both sides of the river, working in tandem while also recognizing that the two cities are not alike.

Geiger said, though, that a more nimble administration from a combined city would be far better poised for the uncertainties and opportunities ahead.

Lawn signs, he said, are not the mark of visionaries.

scollins@sunjournal.com

Jim Howaniec, chairman of the Coalition Opposed to Lewiston-Auburn Consolidation

Gene Geiger, chairman of the Lewiston-Auburn Joint Charter Commission

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