This has been a week that’s shaken Lewiston-Auburn.

There was the move to fire Jim Bennett, without cause or public discussion. Then, within 24 hours, a major anchor of this community’s history was lost to a mighty blaze.

A old phrase, with a local spin, is aptly applied here: while the councilors fiddle, Lewiston burns.

Those in seats of power have chosen to occupy themselves with unimportant matters, and have neglected the community’s priorities during a crisis.

No attempt is being made, of course, to tie limited leadership to the burning of the Cowan Mill. But the inferno created a visual demonstration of the real challenges facing this community beyond the personality conflicts that exist among the power elite.

How soon we forget, due to recent successes, that Lewiston was regularly called the “armpit of Maine” along with other adages intended to demean and belittle the people of this community.

Local politics were viewed as corrupt and economic development was at a relative standstill.

Reputations are fragile. And with a couple of major events last week, it appears there is something unpleasant hiding behind the attractive façade built in the last 10 years.

While some in the readership area of this paper, and in particular those holding seats of influence, may not monitor public opinion elsewhere, the reactions by outsiders to these events are real.

The city council for Maine’s second largest city abruptly votes to buyout the contract of the city administrator, citing disagreement on the direction of the city and calling for a new way forward.

When asked to explain the old direction or what this new direction was, councilors either stumbled to say they didn’t know or refused comment at all.

And with modern media, these quotes were not only in print, but uploaded in sound clips to the Internet.

Take a social networking site like Facebook, too. Many young professionals in this community, while posting what they believed to be tragic news of the loss of history, heard reactions from away noting this was just an old mill town in ruins anyway.

And that’s a sample of the more polite comments.

The crisis in Lewiston-Auburn as a whole goes well beyond the exit of Bennett and the loss of the Cowan.

This region still lacks a cohesive downtown district offering the amenities that would attract more young professionals and visitors.

As service center communities, there is a constant struggle to hold the line on budgets and keep taxes as reasonable as possible.

Our inland location creates a challenge for access to transportation systems, as the state plans for passenger rail and the future of the interstate highway.

The list could easily go on. Instead, what have those in power been focusing on?

Egos scrapped a plan to create one downtown master plan for both cities. And despite a citywide commission, which I co-chaired, recommending a joint plan be created first, councilors who believed they are much wiser have moved unilaterally to destroy Bates Mill No. 5.

An effort to consolidate back office operations at the respective city halls and lower the local tax burden was abandoned. The commission appointed to study future means to save taxpayer money through consolidation was disbanded.

There were fights over which side of the river should get big-box stores. There was a legal battle to stop a hotel project.

As we’ve fought with each other over petty issues, the state’s long-term plan for passenger rail was rolled out.

Small, sprawling and wealthy coastal communities will be the first to be connected to Portland and Boston, leaving any hope of connecting to Lewiston-Auburn relegated to a “dead-end” as New England seeks other routes to connect to Montreal via New Hampshire or Vermont.

It has been the same old song in this community for too long. There are members of the public that have long had concerns about the petty issues that hold us back.

If that’s you, do something about it.

There are members of the business community that rant about the lack of leadership in moving this community to the next level.

If that’s you, do something about it.

The rallying cry of the current Lewiston council is for a new direction. I could not agree more.

Let’s see if the community rises up by election time this November to provide one — for both sides of the river.

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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