In the last 10 years, arts and culture offerings in Lewiston-Auburn have grown exponentially, from storefront window galleries to restoration of the Franco American Heritage Center and the Public Theater. Even without a formal plan, organizers and arts supporters have brought new energy to this important aspect of community life.

And with all the rumblings about the number of studies and plans floating around Lewiston-Auburn, it appears another is starting to gain momentum: the creation of an arts district in downtown.

When looking at other cities in New England, the creation of arts districts has had a major positive effect in quality of life, attracting new residents and increasing investment within the district and nearby neighborhoods.

But the current dispersal of arts facilities throughout downtown Lewiston-Auburn, and the lack of an existing plan doesn’t help in designating an arts district. How would it be done? Would one community designate most of its downtown as an arts district? Should some scattered buildings in either city become the “district?”

Perhaps it is the desire by some to see the former Great Falls School building renovated into a performing arts center that is driving the discussion around formalizing an arts plan.

So from these lofty visions to transform that 50,000-square-foot building comes the call for an arts district. Yet, a 360-degree look at the surrounding neighborhood would find a blighted and often-vandalized bowling alley, which Auburn has already attempted to assist in becoming a low-end, everything-for-a-dollar store, numerous multi-unit buildings, some needing serious investment, and a public park that until a year ago, was largely abandoned by the community.

Without attempting to deflate anyone’s balloon, that Auburn neighborhood has major challenges that the simple designation of an arts district and dropping millions into an aged building will not fix.

For those living in Lewiston and Auburn, the separation of the two cities is easy to observe. For those from away, though, this is clearly one community and is viewed as one destination, not two.

So, if the community is one destination, what might a unified arts district look like to visitors? Where might we draw those lines on a map?

If we assume the Great Falls School becomes the Great Falls Performing Arts Center, what role might Moulton Field, as a patch of green space along the river with major topographic challenges play?

Knowing this community still lacks a modern venue for performances to accommodate large numbers of people, why not build an outdoor amphitheater, similar to those in other states that would leverage the hillside and connect back to the facilities at Great Falls?

Could a walk from the amphitheater take visitors into downtown Lewiston over the trestle bridge, as they pass art installations along the riverwalk and into a state-of-the-art Museum L-A in the former Camden Yarns Mill? Interactive displays that bring the community’s industrial history to life would connect the visitors to the character of this place.

A sweeping turn through Lincoln Street would guide tourists and residents alike along the historic canals, past the renovated Bates Mill and Dominican Block and towards the Franco-American Heritage Center, where a French café and bookstore in the lower levels are met with the elegance and amazing acoustics of the upper level performance space.

And with a few more creative bends up Cedar Street and Lisbon Street the district could end at the Public Theater, the last of what could becomes L-A’s three premier performance spaces.

Look at it on a map. What seems like three major buildings that couldn’t be farther apart, the two cities (if they wished to partner) could lay out an elaborate plan to bring them together through a multi-city arts district. Those vacant storefronts and properties long desiring investment could find new life.

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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