AUBURN — Mayor Jonathan LaBonte said Wednesday that he plans to focus his third term on two key elements he sees as integral to improving the city’s economy and quality of life.

LaBonte, who handily won re-election over challenger Peter Letourneau Tuesday, said finding a solution for Auburn’s worn-out Edward Little High School and ushering to fruition a development that seeks to bring Chinese visitors to the city for medical treatments will be the top focus of his next two years.

“First and foremost is Edward Little High School and finding a permanent long-term solution to that part of our educational system,” LaBonte said.

The school is on a Maine Department of Education list to receive state funding for replacement, but it’s far from the top of that list. That means it’s unknown when and if new construction financing will be made available.

“There are some things in the works now that I think might be helpful,” LaBonte said, including new possibilities of state funding for pilot or innovative new schools that also include up to two years of college or vocational training. A so-called “six-year high school” may be the result, he said.

“There’s a host of things that might be looked at to get us capital that’s not traditional,” LaBonte said. 

That includes the possibility of creating a new academy-type school that might help bring new families and businesses to Auburn or even segue with the medical tourism development to attract students and tuition from outside the U.S.

He said the new school would also likely partner with the University of Maine System and Central Maine Community College in some fashion to help local students achieve more training and education as a means of developing workforce skills that will put them on career paths to well-paying jobs.

“We have a demographic challenge of young people in poverty,” he said.

And while public schools and other programs are working to improve post-high school educational attainment and aspirations, the expense of that to the student is often too large a hurdle to overcome, LaBonte said.

“The thought of young people that don’t come from means having to take on debt is really a problem that’s ripe for Auburn to solve,” he said. “Can we help kids achieve that trade certificate or those first two years of college without the kind of debt that the traditional model imposes on them? That would be a problem worth solving.”

LaBonte, who also serves as the director of policy management for Republican Gov. Paul LePage, said he believes the LePage administration is focused on this as well and believes Auburn could be positioned to capture that enthusiasm and support.

He said he also recognizes that the long-term solution for Edward Little is, “a big problem and not one the mayor’s seat solves alone.”

Collaboration between the city council and city professionals, along with the School Committee and the school department professional staff would be the only way the problem could really be solved.

“I think things need to be on the table that get us outside of the box, but we need to make sure that there is a broad coalition at the table and that there is significant community dialogue,” he said. “We can saber-rattle to the state for the traditional capital or we can say, ‘We are going to carve our own path,’ and I think Auburn’s in a really good position with the leadership we have — across the board, — to do that.”

He also touched briefly on concerns raised during the election campaigns that he could not be an independent agent for the city if he also worked for LePage, noting that mayors do not always agree with the members of city councils, regardless. He also said he doesn’t just back LePage blindly and that when the two disagree, they usually work through it by conversing.

Having been twice elected as mayor unopposed, he said the most recent campaign opened his eyes to a more bare-knuckled style of politics. He said while at times the campaign and rumors about him were discouraging, he has also been heartened by the support of many voters.

As for the medical tourism project, he said while some have criticized officials for being secretive about the project, the fact is simply that the final development and business plan is still being ironed out.

The Shengtong Group from Beijing plans to spend up to $40 million to convert The Barn at 67 Minot Ave. and surrounding property into a state-of-the-art health and wellness hotel aligned with Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston.

The key for him, LaBonte said, was to continue to maintain a good working relationship with the investors in the group who have already started making investments in Auburn and who are going to move forward. He also acknowledged the need for improving public engagement on the details once they are known to avoid the alternative.

“If there is a vacuum, people are going to fill it with rumors,” LaBonte said.  

He noted the developers’ local partners at Central Maine Medical Center would also be instrumental in helping with the public engagement as details of the project become solid.

“There really haven’t been these projects in northern New England, so we really need to make sure we are engaging and talking in a way that people can understand it fully,” he said.

[email protected]


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.