Lewiston and Auburn might be better served with one plan to recruit businesses and industry.

Improvements to quality of life in Lewiston-Auburn are well documented. Arts and cultural offerings have expanded greatly in recent years, new restaurants have opened in downtown , and the Androscoggin River is being recognized as a recreational resource.

And with all of this excitement, it could be easy to miss an important aspect of quality of life: having a good job.

Even with the current economic climate, where simply having a job is something to be thankful for, the region shouldn’t lose sight of the importance of building a strong foundation of stable, good-paying jobs with benefits.

Several generations ago, this community was caught without a plan to grow and diversify its economy. When the textile and shoe manufacturing jobs migrated south, before many moved overseas, there was little that could be done to stop the economic stagnation that followed.

In that era, before the mills starting closing down, Lewiston and Auburn had their own “boards of trade,” the early version of a chamber of commerce. Each city also had its staff involved with business development, though the scale of those staffs pales in comparison to today’s economic and community development departments.

The river, access to cheap power because of the hydroelectric dams, multiple railroad corridors and abundant labor were advantages the cities shared at the height of their industrial development. Those strengths didn’t exist everywhere in New England, making it possible for this community to rise up along the Androscoggin.

Those heavy industries generated significant wealth in this region. They led to the rise of several banks and attracted business travelers from throughout the country to consider investing here.

And while the shoe and textile industries depended too much on raw materials that carried significant transportation costs to get here, cotton from the south for example, the bones still exist to support industry through the area’s transportation infrastructure and skilled work force.

The question becomes whether or not we want industrial-type development, and where and how to make those projects happen.

Most of the talk in Maine about economic activity tends to wander toward tourism as the state’s “biggest” industry, though the metrics can be twisted to meet the talking points of trade groups and advocates. Next in line is typically the nonprofit community, touting its growth and employment figures.

Discussion of larger industrial and commercial development and its positive impact on a community are usually downplayed and rebutted by “not-in-my-backyard-ism” or environmental protest over converting open space, destroying wildlife habitat or impacting sensitive natural areas.

The days of putting manufacturing facilities or distribution centers in downtowns are long gone. The preferred place for these assets is on rail lines or near interstate highways to provide ease of access. Lewiston and Auburn are well-situated for this, given the open land that still exists around both turnpike exchanges and the various rail corridors that are in place, though some are inactive at this time.

In a time of slowing economic activity, the opportunity to reassess strengths and game plans for supporting development presents itself.

With many touting L-A as a potential logistics and distribution hub for Maine and northern New England, what do the public infrastructure needs, such as highways, rail, water and sewer, look like in Lewiston and Auburn to support this growth? What land is available, zoned properly and ready to recruit possible tenants?

More important, who leads to accomplish that? A short list includes the Auburn Business Development Corp., the Lewiston Development Corp., the Lewiston-Auburn Railroad, Lewiston-Auburn Economic Growth Council, the cities and a few others.

And that’s just at the local level.

Could the whole be greater than the sum of its parts? Might Lewiston and Auburn be better served with one plan to invest and recruit industrial and distribution businesses, regardless of the side of the river they’re on? I think so.

But it might only be possible by taking some of the hands out of the pot.

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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