LEWISTON — Every few years, Lewiston-Auburn Economic Growth Council President Lucien Gosselin hears the same question.

City officials want to know what he’s doing with the $335,000 they give him each year. Despite 30 years of championing economic development in the Twin Cities, elected officials want recent results — preferably something within the past 12 months.

Some years, results are easy to see. The council has hit bona fide home runs twice, Gosselin said. TD Bank’s 1998 decision to locate in L-A was one. They did it again in 2002 when Wal-Mart located its distribution center off the Maine Turnpike’s Exit 80 in Lewiston.

“We’re not going to hit a home run each year,” Gosselin said. “Hopefully, we’re going to get to first base. We’d like to get to second base, but home runs are a little harder to come by.”

Hits have been harder to find the past few years with the down economy.

“Auburn City Council, Lewiston City Council, the question always comes up: What have you done for me lately?” Gosselin said.

This year, the questions are coming from Auburn.

Faced with a possible $1.5 million increase in the property-tax levy, City Councilor Mike Farrell is calling for defunding the growth council for the 2011-12 fiscal year. Farrell proposes ending the city’s annual payments of $167,000 to LAEGC from an economic development tax-increment financing district.

“We have an economic development staff that is very talented within city walls,” Farrell wrote in an email. “Marketing is what I hear is the most valuable product LAEGC provides us. We can hire a marketer and still save money.”

At the March 28 City Council meeting, Farrell pointed to the ongoing construction of Bedard Pharmaceuticals headquarters on Minot Avenue in Auburn. Bedard bypassed the growth council, going straight to city Economic Development Director Roland Miller.

“When almost all major projects here are brought in by the same fistful of developers and these developers go straight to city staff, it’s time to change the way you do business,” Farrell wrote.

But Gosselin said his organization is more than that.

“I think people quickly forget the kind of thing we do here is long term,” he said. “We develop strategy while doing the best we can to service current needs.”

From championing regional rail service to the Twin Cities to helping establish Auburn’s dry port and foreign trade zone, most of the group’s best work takes years to bear fruit, he said.

Gosselin and other groups will make their funding pitches to the Lewiston and Auburn city councils this week, 5:30 p.m. Monday in Auburn and 6 p.m. Tuesday in Lewiston.

The growth council is asking for the cities again to pay $167,487 each for their economic development work. In Auburn, that money would come from the city’s economic development TIF. In Lewiston, the city pays $128,987 in TIF money plus $38,500 from a Community Development Block Grant.

“Why do economic development in the first place?” Gosselin said. “What we do here is create wealth in the community. If we are successful in doing that, you’ll see expansion activities, whether it’s investment in plants or employees. And that creates a ripple effect throughout the community, employers and employees investing in the community. That’s everything from paying the rent to buying groceries and clothes to new homes or cars.”

The drawback is that results can be tied to the national, state and local economies.

“If the economy is going great, you see lots of evidence of that,” he said. “When things are as bad as they have been over the last couple of years, you will struggle a little bit.”

Started in late 1970s

The growth council started in 1976, when the city of Lewiston closed its full-time economic development office.

“The economy was absolutely flat,” Gosselin said. “Nothing was going on, and the Finance Committee decided to shut down the office. And they said, ‘Lucien, you take care of economic development now.'”

Gosselin was already working as the city’s comptroller and city administrator and that job took most of his time.

“We started strategic planning, and after four or five meetings, we came up with the idea of a public–private partnership,” he said. “The Lewiston Development Corp. and the city would partner in a new organization, which we called the Lewiston Economic Growth Council.”

The city and the LDC funded the council and appointed members to its board. They hired an executive director, first Michael Bancroft and then John Turner.

“The late 1970s, the economy was just picking up, and John and the growth council were extremely successful,” Gosselin said. 

Auburn leaders, tasked with creating a similar group in 1980, chose instead to work with Gosselin and the Lewiston group.

“They were being asked to replicate that kind of organization in Auburn,” Gosselin said. “They said, ‘Why should we do that and compete?’ And we agreed, with the support of the Lewiston City Council and the Auburn City Council, we then moved into restructuring into a Lewiston-Auburn Economic Growth Council.”

It wasn’t an easy sell, he said. Then, as now, local officials were cautious about how they spent their property-tax money.

“It was a significant reach,” Gosselin said. “It was also a significant thing for two cities to collaborate. And we did it, and we were the first.”

Multiple tasks today

Today, the growth council employs five full-time staff and a part-time aide. It manages assets for three other groups: the Lewiston Development Corp., the Auburn Business Development Corp. and the Lewiston-Auburn Railroad Co.

Matching developers with developable land is one of the group’s main tasks.

“That’s the technical assistance, beginning with a simple phone call to working with a client who has a serious interest in making an investment,” Gosselin said. The council helps developers find good sites, walks them through local rules, helps them find financing from local banks.

“We stay with them right through the construction process to the ribbon cutting,” Gosselin said. That’s what the council has tried to do with efforts to bring a railroad-themed restaurant to the Grand Trunk railroad depot on Lincoln Street. Gosselin said that project is awaiting approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Office.

The council also controls $3 million in financial assets that can be loaned to help businesses locate in the Twin Cities or to help local businesses expand, Gosselin said.

“There are limits as to how much money we can put in a deal, so we rarely make the entire difference,” he said. “But we do make a difference, and in some cases, it’s a critical piece — particularly in business expansion. When local businesses get to a point where growth exceeds their capacity to advance, we can bring in up to $250,000 to help them expand or meet their production needs.”

That’s the kind of help they offered to Micronetixx Communications LLC when it opened an antenna manufacturing plant in Lewiston last year.

“Then we market the community of Lewiston-Auburn as a good place to start a business, grow a business, raise a family and get a quality education,” Gosselin said.

Those efforts can range from national advertising to the statewide “L-A: It’s happening here!” campaign that kicked off in 2003.

Attracting young entrepreneurs

Last year, the council sponsored the Launch L-A contest, offering $100,000 to a young entrepreneur willing to relocate to the area and open a business. They awarded that prize last month to Chelsea Fournier to help her open a massage business, tentatively called Lifestyles Massage Therapy Center.

The council’s efforts have paid off, in Gosselin’s opinion. Companies that have been assisted by the growth council currently employ 13,455 people in Lewiston-Auburn and pay $18.5 million in taxes to the two cities.

“If I let my frustrations be known, we’re asking for something like 2 percent of those taxes for the support we give,” Gosselin said.

The question for councilors is: Can they do better? Gosselin doubts it.

“If Auburn tried to run the same program, it would cost them more,” he said. “Every dime they spend with us is leveraged with similar money from Lewiston. In our opinion, they get tremendous value added.”

But for Farrell, it’s a question worth asking.

“I don’t hold the cards or all the answers, I really don’t,” Farrell wrote. “We have a capable staff. It’s a suggestion. It will be on the agenda and let’s let people come decide.”

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