The collaborative approach to economic development that has characterized the Lewiston-Auburn community for the past generation has been the envy of every municipality in Maine, many of which have tried to copy the local formula. Long before there was widespread chatter about encouraging business in Maine, the Lewiston-Auburn Economic Growth Council was doing something about it, and in a way that created more jobs – in real terms and especially per capita income – in this region than anywhere else in the state.

For more than three decades, LAEGC has been the catalyst that has enabled complex, sophisticated financial investments and oversight, cooperation between the two cities, federal and state agencies, and a wide range of private sector businesses. The Growth Council was created in 1980-81, as an evolution from the previously independent status. The Lewiston Development Corp., founded in 1952, and the Auburn Business Development Corp., established in 1972, have since become affiliated and staffed by LAEGC.

The impetus for the collaborative Growth Council model came in the 1970s, a turbulent time of upheaval in the local economy. The mill-based economy of L-A was established well before the Civil War, and the growth of the textile and shoe industries fueled the expansion of the community, the growth of downtowns, immigration of countless new Americans – first from Ireland, then from Canada, and from Eastern Europe; more recently from Africa and elsewhere – and built the great American middle class right here in the commercial heart of Maine.

The burgeoning prosperity created by multiple generations working hard to provide for themselves, their families, and their community enabled the growth of a local retail infrastructure that attracted Mainers from all corners of the state. 

But then the mills came under pressures from alternative sources for production; in the case of textiles, manufacturing moved south to be closer to the cotton supply chain. The good jobs upon which L-A had depended for more than a century were bleeding out of town, and eventually out of the country.

At the same time, “urban renewal” had decimated the downtown infrastructure. The city of Lewiston curtailed its own economic development office. L-A was on the verge of passing into the ghost town status of countless New England mill towns.

At the height of its productivity, some 6,000 people worked in the Bates Mill, but at its lowest point the number had dwindled to just a couple of hundred. But the local economy has not only survived the end of big-time local manufacturing, it has thrived through a transition into a diverse employment base driven by technology, healthcare and logistics – the keys to 21st century prosperity: Employment in the mill buildings is back in the range of 2,000 jobs.

Lewiston-Auburn support significant industrial parks that were established well before the rest of Maine caught on to what was happening here, and the community has become a transportation hub for the movement of international cargo; a center of education, research and culture; unemployment in L-A has consistently been lower than throughout Maine, and there has been a meaningful rebound from the depths of the great recession.

“To some extent,” said LAEGC’s long-time CEO, Lucien Gosselin, “we have been in the right place at the right time. But we’ve enabled the cities to accomplish things that just could not have been done entirely by the public sector. And we’ve used public participation to leverage private investments in ways which couldn’t have happened without that catalyst, too. Everybody wins, especially twin city residents,” because the property tax burden does not fall primarily on home owners, he explained.

Gosselin knows what he’s talking about. Scheduled to retire from the helm of LAEGC this June, Gosselin has been deeply involved in the local economy for some half century. As the city controller/chief finance officer of the city of Lewiston – the senior-most administrative position before the creation of the city administrator role that Gosselin also held for many years – he was in place during the period of the greatest out-flow of local jobs.

In 1975, to address the upheavals in manufacturing, the LDC formed a private/public partnership with the city of Lewiston; a more pro-active semi-private arm of the municipality. Five years later, Gosselin – by then city administrator of Lewiston – along with Chip Morrison, city manager of Auburn at the time, and local businessman, John Turner – helped both cities address centuries-old innate distrust of one another, embrace the opportunities of private sector investment and development – along with what private development could do for the cities’ tax bases and for the recovery of lost jobs, and founded LAEGC.

A major emphasis was to help eliminate the historic competition between the cities, based on the reality that what was good for either city would benefit both. And the council has been part of virtually every significant development in the area ever since, even though, as Gosselin explained, “The vast majority of what we do is for the benefit of small business innovations, for entrepreneurs who often don’t have the resources to manage all the challenges of site selection, financing, business planning, licensing, permitting; all those logistical details that aren’t part of their core business or vision, but which are essential to their eventual success.”

Probably the biggest single score in the past 20 years or so was the creation of 700 jobs at one time, the result of a $93-million investment in the WalMart distribution center, in Lewiston, the biggest in the entire northeast.

“We were really in an ideal position to respond quickly, in greater detail, to an unknown client inquiry, than either city could have done if we hadn’t been here. If we hadn’t been, there’s a good chance the community would have missed that opportunity,” Gosselin said.

And on the Auburn side of the bridge, LAEGC has, among many other ventures, been a major force in the development of the Auburn Industrial Park, a project which had stalled when the limited economic development resources of the city had been overextended. The complicated project required coordination between the city, ABDC, Maine DEP, Army Corps of Engineers, the EPA, Fish and Wildlife. A major wetlands mitigation site had to be identified, acquired and prepared.

Gosselin has served as president of LAEGC for 17 years, and as he, and the Council, prepares for his imminent retirement, he reflected on what the organization is doing these days.

“Our first responsibility,” he said, “is to answer when opportunity knocks, as we did with WalMart. But the nature of economic development has changed, along with 21st-century technology, and the way we work has changed, too. We have to reinvent ourselves to be financially sustainable in the long term. We recognize that city budgets will continue to be squeezed for the foreseeable future, and so we need to gradually eliminate our dependence on municipal funding.”

The Growth Council is responsible for some complex financial instruments and investments, and is assembling new pools of funds that can be loaned to local businesses at preferred rates.

“We have different tolerances than conventional lenders,” Gosselin explained, “because we are nonprofit. We have a little higher risk tolerance, and we are very supportive of traditional and non-traditional lenders.”

At the same time, operating such loan pools can help generate the operating revenue the Council requires. “By providing subordinate debt ” Gosselin said, “we may leverage up to a 10-to-one ratio in private investment funds.”

LAEGC staffs the B2B Trade Show every spring, the biggest event of its kind in the state, and also provides management and staffing for the Lewiston and Auburn Railroad Co., owners of significant transportation infrastructure in both cities.

The Council has a renewed focus on helping redevelop both downtown areas, enhance the opportunity for the Port of Auburn designation and its role in supply chain logistics. The agency hopes to offer sophisticated back room, technology-driven data mining services; and both upstream and downstream logistics support.

“We’re especially proud of the L/A Future Forum,” Gosselin added. “This is the best example of true civic leadership, gathering some of the most prominent business and civic leaders in L-A to address public/private policy around the three most vital economic development issues in our future: Our riverfront as a unique asset; ensuring accessible, affordable and meaningful educational opportunities for our residents and the workforce requirements of our employers; and the imperatives of a comprehensive immigration policy to ensure that we continue to offer a steady stream of talented and committed employees to both expanding existing businesses and those that will be attracted by that supply.”

Finally, Gosselin concluded, “We’re busy. I’ll miss being at the center of the action, but the Growth Council will continue to provide the leverage the cities need to continue to grow and prosper.”

Lewiston Auburn Economic Growth Council

415 Lisbon Street, P. O. Box 1188

Lewiston, Maine 04243-1188

Phone: 207-784-0161

www.economicgrowth.org


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