Unless you were hiding under a rock last week, you noticed Patrick Dempsey, the television icon, right here in Lewiston-Auburn. His presence, as part of the inaugural Dempsey Challenge bike race and run to support the Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope and Healing at Central Maine Medical Center, drew 3,500 participants and thousands of spectators to downtown.

Without question, the Dempsey Center is a major addition to Lewiston-Auburn and this event supported a very worthy cause. But there is a growing movement in Lewiston-Auburn, that this event successfully highlighted, that is noteworthy and should be further supported: making L-A a hub of physical activity and healthy lifestyles.

The Dempsey Challenge, while the biggest, was also just the most recent example of how a culture of recreation is taking hold here. Looking at this past summer: The second year of the Greater L-A Triple Crown, a series of three 5K running and walking events, further demonstrates this point.

While the 2008 partnership of three local races led by community leaders Mike Lecompte, Tish Caldwell and Ralph Fletcher grew attendance, 2009’s races set records for participants looking not only to run the road race, but just participate in the walking component for volunteerism. Again, thousands of people, from this community, coming together to promote and support each other in living active lives.

The significance of building a reputation for being a healthy and active community cannot be underestimated. While education, good quality jobs, affordable housing and the list of “standard” community measures are no less important, the 21st-century is going to present new challenges and new opportunities for how to reinvent local and regional economies.

Many researchers on the topic of the new economy, and successful models to build it throughout this country, have found a new measure that connects economic vitality to the quality of life for residents through walkability and healthy options. Taking a look at medium-sized and smaller cities and towns ranked as America’s most walkable communities, the connection becomes quite clear.

Places such as Portland, Burlington, Duluth and Exeter, N.H. prove that not only does having an active community attract people to live there, but it is possible to have a walkable and active community in colder climates.

Lewiston-Auburn certainly has changed a lot in the last couple of decades. The sprawl and suburban shift seen in other areas certainly did happen here, and continues. While the population of Androscoggin County has changed significantly, the smaller, once rural towns surrounding the downtown of Lewiston-Auburn have grown as less expensive land and possibly lower taxes await them.

Stemming the tide of sprawl is a much more monumental task than I would suggest starting with. The low-hanging fruit, in this case, is focusing on making in-town neighborhoods around Lewiston and Auburn more attractive by making them more walkable.

Just as the Great Falls Balloon Festival draws thousands to our community, and the economic impacts are often touted, the Greater L-A Triple Crown and the Dempsey Challenge offer the same opportunity, only with a different spin.

If our community is on display, while thousands of recreational enthusiasts converge on it to ride their bike or run or walk through our neighborhoods, what impact might that have?

Sure, they might stop at a coffee shop or fill up their gas tanks before they head out of town. But if those who enjoy recreation and walkable communities observe that we, in fact, have one, the impact will be longer lasting as some may choose to make this place home, tell others about what we have here, and grow the movement.

Making the connection between sporting events and community development is often limited to impacts of sports franchises and big arenas. For Lewiston-Auburn, the connection may be best suited to support the movement that is underway by focusing on making L-A one of Maine’s most walkable communities.

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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