In the continued discussions of strategies to breathe life into downtown Lewiston-Auburn, the idea of finding a few key economic drivers continues to come to the forefront:

How would a convention center kickstart downtown?

What about a casino?

That type of projects is envisioned to do a couple of specific things – bring warm bodies into downtown and spur additional shops and restaurants to cater to them.

Large projects, like convention centers or casinos, get attention because they either require a public subsidy (the former) or need legislative action (the latter). Many pontificate that if we market our vacant downtown lots, some investor will want them because it all comes down to “location, location, location.” If you talk to those in real estate, while they would agree that location is a factor, location does little if a project cannot be profitable.

In dreaming about prospective projects, residents often believe in solutions with which the marketplace doesn’t agree.

So if we can’t control the private sector, and the political implications of a large new anchor for downtown make it a slim chance, what’s the alternative? Where can the public, through its government, invest to draw people, and how does it advance downtown development?

The Social Security Administration, a federal agency, is moving its office from downtown Auburn to the mall area. Office visits that once brought residents into downtown will now direct them from it. Rather than being central to the city, where a new bus hub will soon be built, this office is relocating to a storefront on a limited leg of a bus route.

Our local colleges are similar. Many communities, particularly around New England, have recognized the best way to connect young people to a place – and hope they will stay after graduation – is through the colleges they host.

Those students, often with free time on their hands between classes or after the day is done, may look for coffee shops, places to open up their laptops and get online, or perhaps some look for a local watering hole after hours. If we look around at our public institutions of higher education, where do we find them?

Central Maine Community College, originally built as a technical institute, has invested tens of millions expanding and modernizing their campus in northern Auburn. They continue to look at ways to expand on-campus housing to make the two-year school more attractive.

What if, over the last 10-15 years, a strategic direction was taken to expand and modernize the campus by shifting it toward downtown?

Would a community college in downtown be more convenient for residents, and create opportunities to have students living in private apartments? Might it have afforded business opportunities for shops to open near the school buildings to cater to students?

This story applies to USM-LAC, which sits in an industrial park. Millions have gone into that facility to create its initial phases and additional state bonds have built additional buildings and acquired more land in that city-owned business park.

What if those millions in state money had gone into a downtown building, perhaps a mill, to bring those students downtown, rather than to a sprawling business park with no local flavor?

Before those involved with Social Security, the community college or USM get their feathers all ruffled, this is not a question of the value of public investments in these assets.

The question is instead: Why should we expect private investment in our downtown, after so many large public facilities chose not to?

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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