LEWISTON — If the Androscoggin River really is the thing that unites the Twin Cities, it could use a little attention, city councilors said Wednesday night.

Councilors from both cities met for a joint session in Lewiston City Hall to discuss economic development issues and how they can best work together.

The discussion was moderated by Don Gerrish, a consultant working with municipal recruiters Eaton Peabody. Gerrish, a former Brunswick town manager, worked with Auburn as interim city manager last year. Gerrish managed city operations and helped councilors locate and hire Clinton Deschene in June.

River issues were key for most councilors.

“I propose we make a commitment to care for our riverfront,” Auburn Councilor Tizz Crowley said. “We have to start by changing some language. We have to stop saying it’s a river that divides us. It binds us.

Lewiston and Auburn are looking to enhance their riverfronts — Lewiston through its Riverfront Island Master Plan and Auburn with an effort to extend the Riverwalk south through New Auburn.

Auburn Mayor Jonathan LaBonte said it’s important for those planning efforts to work hand in hand.

“As you are walking from the Lisbon Street district to the Mill District to New Auburn to Old Auburn, how does it work together seamlessly?” LaBonte asked. “Both cities are working on design standards, new forms of urban code. I think there is a significant opportunity where the cities could do urban development centers and pool resources to do urban design work, support downtown urban businesses and events.”

Councilors agreed.

“All the livability space we have to share in the downtown needs to look like one community. You need to be able to move from one to the other without saying, ‘I’m in Lewiston’ or, ‘I’m in Auburn.'”

Auburn Councilor Belinda Gerry said it might be time to get in the river and clean it up.

“I’ve been told that L.L. Bean came up here and put boats on the river and really enjoyed it,” Gerry said. “They loved the fishing, but they didn’t like having to duck the refrigerator or the broken piece of car in the water. If we are going to bring people down to the riverfront, we need to clean it up to the point that it’s suitable to enjoy.”

Lewiston City Councilor Richard Desjardins cautioned the group, saying they can’t limit their efforts to the downtowns.

“We need to be careful that we don’t self-destruct something good that’s out there now,” Desjardins said. “We can’t spend way, way too much effort on the downtown and forget about what’s happening in the rest of the city.”

LaBonte said the cities’ economic development efforts ought to extend to the Twin Cities’ image around Maine. It’s still not where it should be, he said.

“If we really believe we have an edge with our environment, it’s time to make sure we get the same opportunities to recruit new businesses that Portland and Bangor do,” LaBonte said.

He noted that Lewiston-Auburn hosted the state’s first Conference on the Creative Economy in 2004, but the conference relocated to Camden the next year and stayed there. He also pointed to high-tech investment in Portland, Bangor and Augusta.

The Twin Cities must do a better job enticing those industries, he said.

“Maybe it’s looking at how we organize locally,” LaBonte said. “Maybe it’s another entity organized around finding these creative 21st-century-economy jobs. Maybe we need to come up with a vision saying we want it, and we talk to our partners at Bates College and the Lewiston-Auburn campus of USM to say it’s time those jobs came here.”

Lewiston Councilor John Butler said the cities also have to work on trusting each other. He referred to last spring’s budget discussions when Auburn councilors decided not to fully fund L/A Arts.

“There is a question of trust,” Butler said. “I know we are talking economics, but when we have joint service agencies that are not jointly funded, they become disjointed. And that creates a sense of mistrust.”

Lewiston Councilor Mark Cayer said the cities have to be independent of each other without ruining trust.

“If we can’t do it, we’ll become dysfunctional,” Cayer said. “We need to be able to disagree and then move on to the next subject. I think both councils do that among themselves. Now, we need to do it on a bigger scale.”

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