A mill town. On the banks of the Androscoggin River. Built during the 19th century industrial revolution.

The core industry in decline with production moving offshore. Iconic industrial buildings remain that have served as the communities’ brand.

No, this is not another analysis of the economic transition of Lewiston-Auburn or the resurgence of the Bates Mill complex. That transition, while it started painfully slow nearly half a century ago, is well on its way to becoming a model.

Those opening lines apply, in a much more painful way, to the reality of a community about 30 miles upstream of L-A.

This past week marked a significant milestone in the history of the towns of Jay and Livermore Falls; the shutting down of the last paper machine at the Otis Mill. The century-old facility, which was once a major player in the global paper market under the International Paper flag, served as an icon to the character of this proud industrial community with its brick tower being visible in the skyline for miles in most directions.

And for an industry that is unlikely to see an automaker-style bailout, regions that remain dependent on pulp and paper cannot afford to wait out this and other economic storms to come without a plan.

Granted, the major economic driver will likely remain pulp and paper in that area, with the more stable Verso Paper located there, but that facility’s ability to buoy the entire local economy is no longer a reality.

It has never been an issue to use old clichés in this column space, so encouraging that region, at the gateway to the Western mountains along the Androscoggin River, to not reinvent the wheel seems reasonable. To carry the metaphor a little further, whose wheel might they look to emulate?

There are no cookie cutters in the world of economic and community development. In every region, the demographics and the natural and man-made landscape vary. The process for assessing those strengths and opportunities, however, and what hurdles exist to overcome long held stereotypes can be replicated and should.

It doesn’t seem that long ago that Lewiston-Auburn watched the millions of square feet of mill space become vacant and property values plummet.

When the Bates Mill fell under city ownership, the great question became, “Do we embrace our heritage and bring those mammoth, landscape dominating structures into modern uses, or do we wipe them off the face of the earth in hopes that some angel investor would make something rise from the ashes?”

When the rest of the state still looked at the L-A community as a rough and tumble area without much going for it, the “LA: It’s Happening Here” campaign arose to tell the story of economic and community success and progress to those here and those away.

The lessons learned run deep, and they were not lessons easily learned. Why then, if there is insight and knowledge on how to tackle such daunting challenges as planning for economic transition and leveraging a community’s strengths, shouldn’t that knowledge be shared?

Lewiston and Auburn still have their challenges, and the cities’ staff and elected officials are working hard every day to find creative ways to overcome them. Even with that said, there is always a way to find time to help a friend in need. This is a challenge to Lewiston-Auburn officials to reach out to your peers upstream and offer some guidance, some insight, some support as they map out their future.

In a global economy, where place matters and capital is fluid, Jay, Livermore Falls, Lewiston and Auburn stand to gain more working together to strengthen the larger regional economy, than working independently.

The common thread, the Androscoggin River, has historically divided us, especially in recent years in fights over water quality. Perhaps, as we embark on planning and developing a new 21st-century economy along its banks, this same mighty river could unite these proud industrial villages of New England.

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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