Local attorney Jim Howaniec, left, addresses the crowd during a debate on merging the cities Tuesday at Central Maine Community College in Auburn. Behind him is Gene Geiger, arguing for combining Lewiston and Auburn into one city. Howaniec spoke against the proposed merger.

AUBURN — The first public forum between the competing campaigns on a proposed merger of Lewiston and Auburn was an hour-and-a-half-long push and pull between a bold vision to unite two cities and a plea to sustain their separate legacies.

One argued that consolidating the cities will allow a singular economic vision in response to a rough demographic outlook. The other said both cities can accomplish what needs to be done without merging. 

The forum, organized by the Lewiston-Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and hosted at Central Maine Community College, was the first opportunity for both sides to debate the issues in front of an audience. It was also streamed live online by multiple groups.   

Gene Geiger, chairman of the Lewiston-Auburn Joint Charter Commission, and Jim Howaniec, chairman of the Coalition Opposed to Lewiston-Auburn Consolidation, maintained a civil debate with few emotional jabs. 

“Uncomfortable conversations create change,” Geiger told the audience, just before recapping demographic challenges, including a projected workforce decline for the region and the fact that 50 percent of high-wage earners in Lewiston-Auburn don’t live in either city.

While Geiger believes a merger could help the two cities attract and retain young professionals, Howaniec and the opposition believes progress has already occurred, and taking a chance on a merger could jeopardize both cities. 

“Many of us think that Lewiston and Auburn already are great,” Howaniec said. “We don’t think they need to merge to become something greater.” 

The pair was given the chance for opening statements, and then tasked with answering four prepared questions followed by written questions from the audience. The questions focused on economic development, education and image. 

Among the recurring arguments from the anti-merger group has been disputing the cost savings projected by the charter commission. A study conducted by consulting firm CGR says between $2.3 and $4.2 million would be saved per year.

Howaniec called the study a “naive analysis” and “a shallow document,” arguing that labor contract negotiations would cause increased costs. The coalition also argued that paying off existing debt in each city and property revaluations could cause further strains. 

Although the referendum has yet to be formally approved by both city governments, it will likely appear on the ballot Nov. 7, where it must receive a majority vote in each city to be enacted. 

Geiger has said the commission will submit the necessary documents to both cities by the end of June, hoping for the required public hearings to be held in July and August.

Beckie Conrad, executive director of the chamber, said the forum was organized as an educational opportunity for its members as well as the public. She said the chamber has not (and may not) take a position on the debate. A hashtag touting the debate read #LAyoudecide.  

In coming up with the projected merger savings, Geiger said, the charter commission’s work groups included city officials who parsed the city budgets, coming up with a range of savings based on eliminating duplicate positions.

He said where the two cities could make the biggest impact by merging is in education. Consolidation would create the largest school system in Maine, and Geiger said more resources could allow the department to create specialized curriculum at different locations. 

A fatal problem for the pro-merger group, Howaniec said, is selling its case using words like should, would, and could. 

“That’s not good enough,” he said. “We need guarantees.” 

One of the questions asked the two campaigns to describe what L-A would look like in 2020 and beyond, when the merger would become official if approved. 

Howaniec said a merger could interfere with the “great momentum” already here, and that there will be unintended consequences on both sides of the river. 

Geiger said he foresees “an end to jealousy and cross-river bickering” between the two cities, and creating a “single vision for the full community.”

“If we hug our history, 20 years from now we’ll still be two struggling mill towns, asking why our kids leave and never come back,” he said.

Another piece of the debate centered on the image of the region, especially outside Lewiston and Auburn. While Geiger said opinions on Lewiston-Auburn are mixed in other parts of the state, Howaniec said he “couldn’t care less” about what “Portland media” and others think of his hometown. 

“We could pave our streets gold and people in Portland would still look down on us,” he said.  

Geiger argued the area’s image following a merger could drastically boost economic development interest. 

Questions from the audience focused on schools, the projected savings, and how to boost cooperation between Lewiston and Auburn without merging. They also pressed Howaniec on how to grow economic development without merging, and pressed Geiger on why similar neighbor cities like Biddeford-Saco and Bangor-Brewer have never merged. 

Howaniec said he didn’t have all the answers. “There’s no magic solution, just hard work,” he said, but the coalition believes a merger isn’t the right answer. 

“We’re going to see more cities looking at this,” Geiger said of consolidating. “I think we’re going to be leaders in this.”

In one of the more testy exchanges, Geiger said Howaniec and the coalition’s “skill is to raise fear and doubt.” He also mocked Howaniec’s characterization of the out-of-state consulting firm that was hired to study a merger. 

The final question asked the two participants to describe the best outcome if the competing campaign won. 

Howaniec, a former Lewiston mayor, said he agrees with 90 percent of what the charter commission is advocating for, except for the merger itself. He said when he was mayor, there was great cooperation between the two municipalities. 

“The mayoral kumbaya doesn’t work today,” Geiger responded. “If (the merger) fails, I hope we’ve laid out a series of ideas that can benefit the community in some way or another.” 

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Local businessman Gene Geiger, background, looks over at his opponent, Jim Howaniec, at Central Maine Community College in Auburn on Tuesday night during a debate over an initiative to combine Lewiston and Auburn into one city.


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