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Only Steps Forward: Create a regional economic engine, not just one city

By Jonathan P. LaBonte

Mayor of Auburn

As the drum beat for and against a merger of the cities Lewiston and Auburn continues, it is likely key themes will emerge in both camps to make their case.

What I have heard and read from the Joint Charter Commission to date is a message about the economic stagnation of the two cities over the last generation or more and that an aging and declining workforce requires us to make a bold new move. In their pitch, of course, that’s to merge the cities.

One data point that is used is the GDP, or gross domestic product, of the Lewiston-Auburn metro area. This number is a measure of the size of the economy across a series of sectors, and the most recent data from 2015 shows the Lewiston-Auburn economy shrinking by 2.5%.

The region fell to 340th in the ranking of metro areas in the country. To our immediate south, the Portland metro came in ranking 88th nationally and grew 1.4% in that year.

From the speeches given so far by the commission, this shrinking of the L-A economy is tied to Auburn’s decision to end its subsidy for the non- profit Lewiston-Auburn Economic Growth Council. Many of you likely remember the debates and political posturing from this year’s Auburn budget process on the issue of a number of regional non-profit groups and how much, if at all, property taxpayer funds should be used to subsidize them.

Unfortunately for the talking point of the merger commission, the shrinking of the L-A economy and the falling of our metro to 340th nationally occurred while the full subsidy was being provided. It was the fact that our regional economy was stalled that the Auburn City Council chose to move in a different direction.

This is typically where the debate breaks down into a simple solution; either work with your neighbors nicely and fund the Lewiston-Auburn growth council or remain divisive and play alone in the sandbox. In today’s world of community and economic development, those aren’t the only options.

The Charter Commission is right when it raises the challenges of competing in a global economy and that regions must band together. My question to them and to the voters that will weigh a merger is this: how large of a region must band together if you wish to compete globally?

One region of the country I have often looked to—as it has mobilized community stakeholders to revitalize its downtown, bring life back to its riverfront and build upon 21st-century infrastructure like broadband—is Chattanooga, Tennessee.

To compete globally, Chattanooga is not pursuing a consolidation with an abutting city. They have built a coalition, led by some elected officials but more folks from the private sector, to look at a region that can compete and to align policies across multiple governments. In fact, their effort, known at Thrive55, spans three southern states and more than a dozen counties and is aligning education, transportation and other policies to attract investment and jobs.

One of the most successful regions of the country in creating economic turnaround believes that to “thrive” with the economic headwinds facing the global economy, you must band together across city, county and even state lines. Then why is Lewiston-Auburn, at 340th nationally, believe we could turn it around sticking with the same team, rather than growing it?

To our immediate south is the fast-growing Portland metro. Should we be looking at strategies for education, transportation and housing that integrate Androscoggin, Cumberland and York Counties to compete nationally and internationally?

When Auburn and Lewiston first became cities, there was clear alignment of economic growth strategies because those could still be influenced at the local level, a level that spanned only two municipalities.

Today’s world takes much of that influence out of the local level and places it at a regional level. Making one city out of two won’t change our ability to compete. However, aligning one region (Lewiston-Auburn) with another (Portland) holds

great potential to create economic opportunity and enhance our competitiveness. It’s no longer Lewiston versus Auburn or L-A versus Portland. It’s Southern Maine versus the rest of the nation and world—and we must become more competitive.

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