LEWISTON — High school seniors spent their government class Tuesday asking questions of local officials.

They asked about job and recreation opportunities, why downtown looks the way it does, and lamented there’s better things to do and more job choices in other places.

When students were asked how many planned to stay in Lewiston-Auburn, no one raised a hand.

Officials countered Lewiston-Auburn has much to offer, the area is changing, growing and improving. Some students seemed surprised at what they were told by Auburn Mayor Jonathan LaBonte, Auburn City Councilor Josh Shea, Lewiston Mayor Bob Macdonald and municipal officials. Others were skeptical.

Student Dylan Tanguay said hearing the area is improving “sounds cool, but I don’t see it like downtown Boston.”

Another student said Lewiston-Auburn offers things for “the older generation, and that correlates with jobs,” but not so much for the young.

Student Joe McKinnon complained while downtown Auburn offers new or occupied buildings, on the Lewiston side of the river “there’s a dead mill, grass growing up. There’s nothing. It’s all vacant.”

“You’re wrong,” Shea said. Walking down Lisbon Street “I can name five restaurants, three art galleries that were not there two years ago.”

LaBonte said it will take time to redevelop the downtown. “When the Maine Mall was built, Portland died. Portland looked like Lewiston looks now. It was the long-term commitment of being able to sell ‘Here’s what we’re trying to do’” that improved Portland, he said.

When another student said there aren’t engineering jobs here, LaBonte listed companies that employ engineers, including Harriman Associates and Tambrands, both in Auburn. “You might be surprised how many of those jobs are in or near the community.” While some of the jobs are here, “there aren’t places where young people can live in the same neighborhood so if you go out at night you see your peers.”

Student Niko Potter asked panel members if there was something they could do to improve the Lewiston-Auburn economy, what would it be?

“I would improve everybody’s attitudes,” Shea answered. Lewiston-Auburn has great restaurants, art galleries, two great theaters, “there’s plenty to do around here, but people have this negative attitude here, and perpetuate it outwardly.”

He said he sometimes hears better things about Lewiston-Auburn from people who don’t live here. More positive attitudes could mean 12 people decide to go out to eat locally, and that would mean more jobs.

“If you think it sucks here, leave,” Shea said. “What you’re going to learn is that it sucks everywhere. It sucks less when your family is around. It sucks less when you know how to get around, your friends are here.” A Lewiston High graduate, Shea said he, too, couldn’t wait to leave at 18, but by 26 he realized “Lewiston-Auburn is a great place to live.”

The kind of conversation officials were having with young adults is important, LaBonte said. For years the community has been run by some “who have been here forever,” and have less of a vision of building downtown clusters of restaurants, shops and housing.

“Most folks say, ‘Downtown’s dead! Move on,’” LaBonte said. If young people want a vibrant city, they need to let officials know. Otherwise city halls are only hearing “from the 55-year-old man who isn’t happy and says, ‘Stop giving grants to fix downtown buildings. Just go build a strip mall.’”

In five to 10 years “there’ll be a showdown between the generations,” LaBonte predicted. “Are we trying to build a city, or do we want to be a place people come and sleep?”

The workshop was sponsored by the Maine League of Young Voters Education Fund. Young people know about government, but they need “the critical link of how to get involved,” said organizer Nicola Wells. They need to understand “when they’re 21, they can run for office. And city councilors today want to hear from them.”

Niko Potter, 17, said the workshop changed his outlook. “For a long time it felt things were stagnant in this town, they didn’t really care or want to do anything,” Potter said.

If what he was told Tuesday is true, Potter said Lewiston may go from a peaceful, calm city to a vibrant one, “like when the mills were in production. I’m looking forward to seeing that.”

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