Preserving our historic past is the secret to improving our quality of life.

Don Schilling, in Civic Tourism, describes the task of economic development as the revelation of the genius of a place. Part of this notion is the idea that by making our communities more enjoyable for ourselves, we attract the attention of visitors and others who might decide to stay.

Lewiston and Auburn have a genius of place: picturesque river and falls, attractive red-brick mills, church spires, homes designed in high style, and a rich history and diversity of people. This genius has only just begun to be revealed: the balloon festival, fireworks over the falls, and Museum L-A, among other projects. Revealing our genius within the genius that is Maine could make L-A the third point in a destination triangle for Portland cruise ship visitors.

Portland’s cruise ship visitors tour the Old Port and make their way to L.L. Bean in Freeport. Those visitors might enjoy a scenic drive up the Androscoggin River to Lewiston and Auburn, and maybe tethered balloon flights to view the falls, river, and mills. This is a strategic opportunity.

New England has an image of quaint, historic towns. Portland capitalizes on this reputation through preservation of its architectural heritage. While Portland has uniquely crafted buildings that are works of art, the city has its dogs, too.

On approaching the city, the downtown Holiday Inn by the Bay sticks out like a sore thumb. Its “anywhere USA” look detracts from the contextual setting of that part of the city.

In this way, the hotel is like Lewiston’s Wal-Mart distribution center: a garish, high-profile first impression to the community that doesn’t reflect its overall character. While the Holiday Inn and Wal-Mart are certainly useful, they are unpleasant to the eye.

Does it have to be that way?

When you visit the Old Port, for example, it is almost all red brick and granite, which creates a certain pleasant ambience because the buildings belong together. What you might not realize is that some of those buildings are brandnew.

The Cianchette Block and Custom House Street are chic new modern buildings, but they borrow key architectural elements from the 1860 Thomas Block and 1895 Armory that flank them. They fit the unique architectural context of the place, and silently help create the synergistic magic that is the Old Port atmosphere. That didn’t happen by accident.

Greater Portland Landmarks (GPL) is the organization dedicated to preserving not just the individual historic buildings of the city, but the character of place that new construction gives the city, as well. GPL preserves the fabric of Portland’s community as a resource for homeowners, realtors and developers that influence the appearance of the city.

Lewiston and Auburn don’t have such an organization, but they could, and probably should. Lewiston’s Historic Preservation Commission does its job well, but is limited by its current organizational structure. GPL works well as an independent nonprofit; perhaps the citizens of Lewiston and Auburn could create their own “Lewiston and Auburn Landmarks.” Another option would be to expand the scope and mission of the Androscoggin Historical Society (and its resources, of course) to include architectural preservation and education.

It is also useful to consider the role GPL plays as custodian and manager of the Portland Observatory. This venerable landmark attracts hundreds of visitors each year. Lewiston and Auburn have no such destination yet, but it behooves us as a community to anticipate how we would support and exploit (in only the best sense) such a gift when it materializes.

One task for economic development in L-A is to at once break the mill mentality of large-scale enterprise, while building and growing on the preservation of its role in our historic past. That isn’t to say that we should necessarily turn down an oversize employer that knocks on our door; but rather, we should use the smaller-scale opportunities we already have to our best advantage.

Tourism is one of Maine’s leading industries, and is grossly undeveloped in Lewiston and Auburn. We can improve the quality of our lives by recognizing, preserving and continuing the genius of our place. Perhaps we will draw in others as we do so.

Is it happening here?

John Henderson of Auburn does historical research, writing and education as Hometown History Works – Memories Made Manifest. He is a graduate of the Portland History Docent Program and enlivens that city for visitors in tours of the Old Port and Tate House Museum. E-mail: [email protected]

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