The definition of vision is a thought or concept formed by the imagination. It might be an idea you learned from somewhere else and tweaked to apply to your situation. Perhaps it is an outside of the box approach or idea that hasn’t been used before.

In a busy world, with pressing issues like whether or not city employees should be taking city vehicles home at night or how plow routes are drawn, taking time to develop a vision just doesn’t seem possible.

This hypothesis was backed again this week when the Lewiston City Council made the decision to tear down Bates Mill No. 5.

Tearing down an old building isn’t necessarily contrary to having vision for this community, but the process that led to this point and rhetoric of some officials calls it into question.

It might be simpler to prove my case there is no vision for Lewiston-Auburn among some elected officials by ending this column and requesting submissions of their vision to be printed in this newspaper and shared with the masses. Responses would be slow in coming so, rather than wait, I will share my own evidence that we don’t have a vision.

The state of Maine has, over the last few years, embarked on an economic development strategy centered on the concept of “quality of place.” The theme goes something like this: the uniqueness of Maine’s natural resources and its historic downtowns and villages creates a competitive advantage in a mobile world where financial capital and workers can be anywhere.

For Lewiston and Auburn, have we identified the buildings and natural resources that create our “quality of place” and determined how to best invest to lure others here with their money and creativity?

While we haven’t done this as a community, others have taken their own initiative. Eric and Carrie Agren saved the Lyceum Hall on Lisbon Street, now serving as a premier restaurant with their home on the upper floors. Rita Dube and leadership at the Franco American Heritage Center have saved the former St. Mary’s Church, now a breathtaking performing arts center. Tom Platz and his partners, along with city investment, have saved large portions of the Bates Mill complex, converting them to modern offices and shops.

But they are without a citywide plan to help revitalize their surroundings.

As historic buildings are lost, like the DeWitt Hotel, the Empire Theater, the Libbey Mill and perhaps now Mill No. 5, does this erode our ability to be an attractive 21st century location?

Do the councils on either side of the river, have a vision for this place that doesn’t rely on proven research for how other regions in the northeast have come back to life?

Last year, a task force (which I co-chaired) was assigned with finding options for Bates Mill #5. We presented several approaches for the building, all centering on creating a vision for downtown Lewiston-Auburn the community could commit to implement over a period of time.

The council instead opted to request development proposals that – no surprise – yielded nothing.

This year, the city pursued a strategic plan. That plan, still under consideration, states the council will “make a final determination on the future use of the Bates Mill 5 site in concert with the goals of the Riverfront Island Master Plan.”

In Tuesday’s council meeting, Council President Tom Peters was quoted by the Sun Journal saying, “It’s the right time for this because nothing was qualified to fill it.” This means no viable proposals were submitted to redevelop the mill.

Councilor Denis Theriault also chimed that “no one showed up with their checkbook” and offered his idea of using the debris from Bates Mill No. 5 to partially fill the canals.

Given the strategic plan has yet to be adopted, let alone a more specific Riverfront Island Master Plan, businesses and residents should be concerned whether decisions are being made in a vacuum based on individual agendas, rather than a community vision.

If our mills are torn down and our canals filled in, what is Lewiston-Auburn? If our mills are restored and their surroundings brought back to life, what is Lewiston-Auburn?

We are at a fork in the road with no vision to lead us down either path.

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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