LEWISTON — Young professionals crave new bands, nightclubs and restaurants, but they’re not sure what’s already out there.

They consider Lewiston and Auburn’s downtowns to be pedestrian friendly, but they aren’t likely to walk between them.

They don’t feel connected to the area, but they want to be.

And YPLAA really, really wants them to be.

A year after it first asked 20- and 30-somethings what they thought of Lewiston-Auburn’s downtown, the group Young Professionals of the Lewiston-Auburn Area has the answers and is ready to do something about them. On Thursday, the group will kick off its new initiatives in an informational event it’s calling Culture Crawl.

On its long-term slate: Create a more unified feel for the downtowns. Cluster nightlife, dining and entertainment together. Develop parks, walking paths and other green space. Add market-rate housing. And more.

YPLAA’s leaders admit the challenges are age-old and their goals lofty. But they’re undaunted.

“We have the passion behind us,” said YPLAA chairwoman Hillary Verrill. “Maybe it takes years, but we will do it.” 

Questions

YPLAA leaders created the 60-plus-question survey using a $1,500 grant from REALIZE!Maine, a Maine Development Foundation program designed to attract and retain young residents throughout the state. Leaders originally thought the survey would help guide a joint Lewiston-Auburn master planning effort, but that effort died.

“So we just went for it and did it all anyway,” said Hillary Eaton, who was YPLAA chairwoman at the time. “That became our own pool of information, to say, ‘OK, even if we’re not working as a component of a joint master plan between two cities, we’re going to use that information to craft our own initiatives.'”

YPLAA launched its survey online in August 2009. Just over 300 people responded within the month. To get further feedback, it held public forums and meetings with targeted groups.

This August, a year after it posted the survey online, YPLAA released some of the results.

YPLAA leaders acknowledge the survey’s respondents don’t represent Lewiston-Auburn citizenship as a whole. Because of the way the survey was publicized — largely through friends of YPLAA members and businesses associated with the Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce — respondents were typically white, with higher-than-average incomes.   

“Some of the people who answered are the top executives in the area,” Eaton said.

Still, YPLAA leaders believe the survey gives a valuable look into the minds of local young professionals.  They found, among other things, that:

* Only 40 percent felt connected socially and professionally in the Lewiston-Auburn area.

* Nearly all had cars, and while they thought the Lewiston-Auburn downtowns were pedestrian friendly, they weren’t likely to walk between them.

* More than half thought the area felt like two downtowns with separate identities. More than 60 percent wanted a single Lewiston-Auburn downtown with a single identity or a single downtown with multiple identities, splitting the area into specialized districts, for example.   

* Few attended more than five arts/entertainment events in the downtown during a calendar year. Most wanted more restaurants and a better nightlife.

* Most wanted officials to preserve the mills and encourage mixed-use development. They also wanted green space.

* Very few lived in the downtowns and most said they would never consider living there. Still, 80 percent thought it was ideal to “live, work and play in the same town” and 70 percent thought the cities should provide aggressive housing incentives to young people. 

YPLAA leaders expected some of those results. The fact that many young professionals yearn for a single Lewiston-Auburn downtown? Not a surprise.

“I’m sure that’s probably different than what you’d get from people in the older age category, who probably want to honor that separateness of Lewiston and Auburn. The general feeling of young adults is, ‘We want to move past that,'” said Adilah Muhammad, who was chairwoman of the YPLAA Betterment Committee at the time. “We kind of figured that would show up.” 

Other results were more startling, including the fact that respondents craved entertainment but didn’t seem to know what Lewiston-Auburn already had. 

“‘More options for nighttime.’ ‘More music options.’ So it’s like, ‘OK, are you watching the bands that are listed on Guthrie’s website? Are you aware there’s music at Gritty’s? Are you aware that on Tuesday evenings they have music out on the patio at the Hilton? Are you aware there are free concerts in the park on Wednesday?'” Eaton said. “I think there’s a lot of things people ask for that are already there.” 

Eric Agren, who owns the restaurants Fuel and Marche on Lisbon Street in Lewiston, took the survey. While he’s not the average respondent — he lives and works downtown — many of his views match those of the survey’s typical young professional. He’d also like a better nightlife and more restaurants downtown, though not because he doesn’t know what’s already downtown, but because he’s keenly aware of exactly what is.

“There would be nothing better, in my opinion, than if there were 10 more restaurants right next door to me,” Agren said. “I think it would be the best thing that could happen to us. People develop behavior patterns and when they want to go out to dinner and they want to go to a nice spot, with that kind of saturation. Then the immediate thought is to come, say, down here if we had five more restaurants. So I’m all for it. Bring it on.”    

Like others, he also wants to see more green space. And he’d like greater incentives for building owners to create housing in the downtowns, because while he believes the downtown cannot thrive without businesses, he believes those businesses cannot thrive without customers who live nearby.

“Instead of saying ‘We need a dry cleaner,’ people should be saying, ‘We need really cool housing options,'” Agren said, adding, “We need the people first, then the services will come.”

YPLAA wants to help make that happen.

Answers

Using its survey results as a basis, YPLAA has created a five-page mission statement and a series of goals to focus on:

* Create a unified identity for the downtown Lewiston-Auburn

* Encourage responsible and sustainable land use, zoning and tax incentives to promote small business

* Increase market-rate housing

* Deal with transportation issues

* Improve the nightlife and entertainment situation and perception

Some goals already have a strategy attached. To help with young professionals’ poor perception of entertainment, for example, YPLAA wants to promote the area and its options with special events and Culture Crawl tours that highlight what the downtowns have to offer.  For zoning, small business tax incentives and increased housing, YPLAA plans to send members to city meetings to make sure the views of young professionals are heard come decision-making time. 

For other major goals — such as sustainable land use — YPLAA members don’t have firm plans. They have visions of potential.

“I would like to see people get beyond the perception that a green space has to be on the ground. I mean, we’re talking about downtown urban development. Why aren’t you talking about green space on your roof?” Eaton asked.  

On Thursday, YPLAA leaders will talk about the survey and its initiatives during an evening Culture Crawl. The event starts at 5:30 p.m. with refreshments and a presentation at the Public Theatre in Lewiston. Between 6:45 p.m. and 7 p.m., participants will walk down Lisbon Street. At 7 p.m., YPLAA will offer a cocktail reception at Fuel. 

But only 15 minutes to tour Lisbon Street, the heart of the downtown that YPLAA is trying to promote?

“We’re not going to so much stop and take the time for everyone on the Lisbon Street Culture Crawl. In the future that will be different, I think. They’ll be created differently, where we’ll be able to show the different venues that exist. This one is more our kickoff,” Verrill said.     

They will have the time to do more, she said. And the motivation.

“When you take a group of determined people who want to make change happen, the amount of passion they have driving behind them — and if you’ve ever seen these YPs volunteering, there’s a lot of passion behind what we want to do — it’ll happen,” Verrill said. 

What is YPLAA?

The Young Professionals of the Lewiston Auburn Area is a group created four years ago by the Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce to strengthen the young professional community. Dedicated to professionals between the ages of 20 to 40-ish, the group promotes and creates fun events, personal and professional development and community involvement.

Want to join YPLAA?

Contact Chairwoman Hillary Verrill at [email protected], Jenny Ziebart at 783-2249, or go to www.yplaa.com. Members usually live or work in Androscoggin County and are between the ages of 20 and 40, though members don’t age out. There are other young professional groups throughout the state for those who live elsewhere and who would like something closer to home. That information can be found at www.realizemaine.org.

Want to attend a Culture Crawl?

Everyone, regardless of age or membership, is welcome to attend YPLAA’s Culture Crawls and other events. For more information about upcoming events and any registration requirements, go to www.yplaa.com or contact Chairwoman Hillary Verrill at [email protected]


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