The economic challenges facing Maine and this region are well documented. Struggles to stabilize our historic industrial base; downtowns over 100 years old with infrastructure needing millions to rebuild, and a political system still rooted in the 16th and 17th centuries.

This is not a formula for success.

It has been argued that eliminating redundancies and inefficiencies in government has played a major role in allowing communities to prepare for the new economy. Yet typically, debate spirals at this notion, such as having one manager for several small towns, or Lewiston and Auburn.

After all, selectmen and councilors seem to relish the notion of “local control,” which  means you can boss somebody around if elected to do it. Of course, that last statement is more tongue and cheek than anything, but it brings home part of the challenge of government by municipality — vision, planning, and investment often ends at the town line.

One of the final blows to Island Point in Lewiston, at the upper end of the canal, was the fire at the Cowan Mill. Even before the blaze, though, city councilors would point to hindrances to redevelopment; sewer, water, roads and other infrastructure that is either not there or must be rebuilt.

That demand for millions of dollars in public investment, within the municipal boundaries of Lewiston, is a major hurdle. And if the Bates Mill redevelopment is an indication, even with investment by the city, surrounding communities like Auburn, Turner, Greene etc. will benefit. The employees of any new business may choose to call the region home, but not necessarily Lewiston.

How can one municipal corporation justify spending local taxpayer money for regional benefit? How can the elected leaders ponder borrowing against the properties in their town or city when the positive impacts of any project will spread outside of their boundaries?

One would think this is not only impossible to justify, but simply wouldn’t happen. It has. But it didn’t before. 

In 1874, in recognizing the critical need to integrate the mill district (now Riverfront Island) to the regional marketplace for the distribution of goods and the movement of people, Lewiston and Auburn formed the “Lewiston Auburn Railroad Company.” Of note is that a majority of the investment, by Lewiston shareholders, took place in the city of Auburn.

Three years later, in 1877, Lewiston voters approved a $200,000 bond to invest in the acquisition of the northernmost dams on the Androscoggin River. Agreeing to cover more than half of purchase price, along with a private investment from the Franklin Company, Lewiston taxpayers saw the long-term economic benefit of ensuring the canals would be full of water to power and grow their city.

The 20th-century was no different. Both cities partnered on ownership of the municipal airport and jointly developed a business park in Auburn. The local bus service, operated by both cities, does not split its route to maintain 50 percent of its miles on one side or the other.

Water and sewer services, critical to advancing economic interests, have led to shared management of the Lake Auburn watershed by both cities and the construction of a shared waste water treatment facility in Lewiston.

There have been no moves as bold as those in the 19th-century that prepared this region for nearly 50 years of monumental growth, but the time could be no better to put new efforts on the table to share investment.

Why not combine all watershed protection, water and sewer departments and treatment facilities in a regional district? While there would be some savings from eliminating the dozens of board members now overseeing the separate agencies, the true benefit would be to target infrastructure investments where they will have economic impact. As a water and sewer-rate payer in Auburn, I support making investments in Lewiston, especially if it kick starts a mill redevelopment.

Why not combine all transportation services in the region into a transportation authority? Rather than have the airport, railroad, transit and parking garages overseen by dozens of city councilors and various boards of directors, allow one master plan for multi-modal transportation and investments to evolve. Parking structures in Lewiston could support Auburn development if included on shuttle bus or trolley routes, and vice versa, and both cities would share in the regional investment. At $30,000 a parking space, can both cities afford not to coordinate getting every space they build filled?

With millions of dollars of infrastructure needed to breathe new life into opportunities to lure private capital, it is time to reorganize the local bureaucracies to ensure investments have a regional impact, regardless what city or town they are in. 

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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