In a week dominated by the dismantling of the Citizens’ Commission on Lewiston-Auburn Cooperation, it was impossible to avoid writing about cooperation between the Twin Cities.

It is well-known that most public discussions around cooperation are dominated by pushes and pulls for consolidating city departments. The debate is predominantly about tax rates and burden and how to balance lowering taxes and keeping city councils in control of decisions.

Outside the structure of city departments, city staff and city councils don’t venture into ways that, by cooperating, they could influence the community in a significant way.

And although those at various other levels of government express disappointment that joint services ceased, they share the blame for not advancing ideas that remove the Androscoggin River from dividing one community into two distinct pieces.

An example is the directive in the late 1990s to designate some downtown neighborhoods as an “Enterprise Community,” while leaving others out.

In the late 1990s, two census tracts in downtown Lewiston were given this designation and over the last 10 years, millions in federal money was funneled there to affect their direction. Those neighborhoods, Census Tracts 201 and 204, were two of the poorest in Maine and therefore warranted attention to improve living conditions and economic opportunity.

While there is little doubt those two areas have had challenges and still do, the reasons that led to those challenges, such as large numbers of multi-family dwellings and the exodus of working-class jobs when the mills began closing, also affected the downtown neighborhoods of Auburn located at Census Tract 101 (New Auburn) and 105 (Auburn).

At the time of Lewiston’s special designation as an Enterprise Community, the poverty rate citywide was around 10 percent, with rates in the downtown neighborhoods hovering at over 30 percent – a significant concentration of poor families in a small area.

For Auburn in that same period, the poverty rate was under 10 percent citywide, but its two downtown census tracts had poverty rates between 20 and 30 percent.

If Lewiston-Auburn is indeed one community, how can the federal government deem poverty on one side of the river more worthy of federal support and programming?

The data is similar when looking at employment levels, educational attainment and owner-versus-renter occupied housing. Both cities have downtown neighborhoods, separated only by a river, that have serious demographic and investment challenges.

As Empower Lewiston, the organization created to implement and monitor the efforts tied to being an Enterprise Community, ends its 10th year in existence, dialogue is already beginning on whether the program should continue.

In fact, everyone from Lewiston-based charities to U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud has weighed in on the benefits of the program and its need to continue with more federal funding beyond the end of this year.

There will be celebrations of the accomplishments, public proclamations on its importance, and lots of data and figures on why the program has helped downtown Lewiston and why it is still needed.

What won’t be discussed are the shared challenges faced by downtown neighborhoods in Lewiston and Auburn. Poverty, unemployment, building foreclosures and need for increased educational opportunities don’t end at the water’s edge.

Perhaps while the hotheads from the debate at Auburn Hall use the coming months to cool down in their push to merge or not to merge, they might look for more important policy issues with which to partner with the city of Lewiston.

And I offer one for their consideration.

How do we share strategies to improving quality of life, protecting and increasing property values and providing opportunities for our most vulnerable residents, those in downtown, as the country continues into this recession?

Jonathan LaBonte, of New Auburn, is a columnist for the Sun Journal and an Androscoggin County Commissioner. E-mail: [email protected]

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