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Auburn mayor seeks to build 21st century city

This the Inaugural Address delivered by Auburn Mayor Jonathan P. LaBonté on Wednesday, December 21.

By Jonathan P. LaBonté

Mayor of Auburn

Family, friends, citizens of Auburn: it is an honor to stand before you tonight as Auburn’s Mayor. I thank you for joining us to mark the start of a new chapter in the history of our community.

I want to begin by recognizing members of our community that are not here this evening. First, to the man whose words of encouragement led to my decision to seek this office, my grandfather. A man grounded in his faith and his commitment to family. The steady advice he offered throughout my childhood, as I grew up in this very neighborhood, and until this fall, helped to shape the man I am today.

On Election Day, as many of us gathered at the polls and celebrated victories to elected office, he began his transition out of this world. And though his absence tonight leaves a hole in my heart, I remain committed as ever to serving in public office by the standards and values he instilled in me.

A number of seats were left empty here tonight at my request as a visual reminder of the men and women from our community serving with our armed forces across the world and local through the National Guard and reserves.

Their commitment to freedom, to our country and this community makes possible our form of government, and its peaceful transition, that we celebrate with tonight’s ceremony.

To the staff of the City of Auburn, on behalf of the newly sworn in city council, I thank you for your service. The last couple of years have brought many challenges, and despite those challenges you have persevered, you continued to stay focused on your work at hand on behalf of all of us.

I offer you our firm commitment to work with you as a team, through the city manager we will hire this coming year.

To the students and staff of Walton Elementary School, thank you for opening your doors to host us. This building and its fields bring back many memories for me growing up in New Auburn. From the pickup football games with friends in the neighborhood to my failed attempts to learn to ice skate on the rinks that were a regular fixture here in the winter and finally being among the last ninth-grade classes to earn a green Walton Warriors letter. This building has special meaning to the city, to this neighborhood of New Auburn and to me.

And of course its namesake, Mayor Fred Walton, was born and raised in this same neighborhood. Dying at the young age of 41, Mayor Walton was active in all aspects of the community, from his roots in his family’s New Auburn Bakery, his leadership with the New Auburn Community Association, and the active involvement in the State Fair.

Becoming Mayor shortly after turning 33, Fred Walton had a deep commitment to his neighborhood and his city. He believed that civic involvement extended well beyond service in elected office and that neighborhood groups, like the New Auburn Community Association of the early 1900’s, perpetuated the ideals of good citizenship.

Upon his death, only a few months after the great New Auburn fire, and having accepted a leadership role in the redevelopment corporation seeking to rebuild the neighborhood, the then-president of the New Auburn Association was quoted as saying that Walton “was not merely a leader in ideas, but in the endless work that makes community betterment a success.”

Many of our newly elected councilors ran for office on a platform of civil discourse and teamwork. But having met with each of them, it excites to know that they are not just going to be leaders in ideas, but also leaders in commitment to the endless work necessary to make this city great.

I pledge to you tonight that, along with these councilors, Auburn will make a renewed commitment to civic engagement and community involvement at all levels, from the hallways and classrooms of our schools, to the rooms of ward meetings and ultimately to Auburn Hall itself.

This City Council is ready to step into their roles as policy makers, not individual city managers. As the chair of this team, I’ve committed to supporting them in researching and seeking solutions, in partnership with the city staff responsible for managing the implementation. I will support and encourage them as they tackle the challenges of today to create the opportunities of tomorrow.

And just as the Littles, Moses, Josiah and Edward, Benjamin Bates, Albert Kelsey and many of Lewiston-Auburn’s initial architects laid out a long-term plan to build a vibrant commercial, industrial and residential community, the same must be done today with the reality of the 21st century economy as the backdrop.

Building such a community will command five key ingredients:

A solid educational system supported by modern facilities;

Transportation infrastructure that will support the efficient movement of residents, visitors and goods to and from our region;

A thriving arts, culture and recreational scene;

A housing stock that meets the needs of our most vulnerable residents, but also young entrepreneurs, empty nesters, and families;

And a toolkit of economic development programs that retain and grow existing businesses and strategically recruit companies well suited to our community.

Education. Providing a strong educational foundation in any community positions that community to attract businesses and families and improves the overall quality of life for residents.

If we are to become a city that embraces education as that cornerstone, then this new school committee and this new city council must work together, hand in hand, to make education Auburn’s number one priority. To that end, I will propose a joint workshop between the new council and school committee before the end of January to discuss joint workshop schedules for the year. Agenda item number one will be addressing the school facilities master plan.

Prior School Committees and City Councils neglected capital improvement programs for decades. In this two-year term, I will push for adoption of a joint resolution laying out a process to collectively identify and move towards implementation of a solution for our educational facilities buildings.

We are facing very real challenges of addressing an aging Edward Little High School and providing for lifelong education that will ensure a trained workforce to support economic development. We need to shift from the time when the School Committee and City Council operated independently; our challenges require collaboration among these two bodies at a level that has not been seen in recent memory.

Transportation. Despite our status as Maine’s second-largest urban area and being home to the state’s largest dry goods port, a national transportation group’s recently released top 50 projects for the State of Maine, totaling billions of dollars in need, had Lewiston-Auburn nowhere near the top 25. Billions in proposed investment priorities, L-A identified for only $10 million.

Our failed local advocacy has left us on the outside. Not any longer.

For the movement of our residents, and potential investors and visitors, I propose that Lewiston-Auburn focus on making three major links, not to each other, but rather to our urban partner to the south, Portland.

I will work with this council and city staff to investigate the creation of a commuter bus service between Downtown Portland and Downtown Lewiston-Auburn. A recent MaineDOT study concluded federal investment into such a commuter service should be made along the coast to Brunswick, where a free interstate and a soon to be launched rail service exist. That is not acceptable.

Lewiston-Auburn residents already pay to use our section of the interstate, increasing commuter costs. And our downtown households have among the lowest rates of car ownership in the state. Unfortunately, an antiquated federal policy creates a bias towards chasing wealthy commuters to coastal suburbs over linking communities where populations may be lacking vehicles, be unemployed or underemployed.

These types of flaws in state and federal policy that put Lewiston-Auburn at a disadvantage must be addressed. And this includes either removing the toll north of Portland on the Turnpike or finally placing a toll on I-295.

As we push for a regular bus service from our downtown to Portland, we should also include a link from our community to one of the northeast’s most affordable commercial airports, the Portland International Jetport.

After undergoing a more than $80 million expansion, easy access from the heart of our community to dozens of national hubs should be seen as an opportunity—not competition.

And following a decade of watching passenger rail advocacy send the Downeaster up the coast, momentum has emerged to create intercity passenger rail service from Portland to Auburn and onto Bethel and Montreal. Working with partners, Auburn will play a leadership role in making access to passenger rail a priority at the state and federal level.

Arts and culture and recreation. When it comes to quality of life, the stigma of Lewiston-Auburn as a cultural wasteland is over. And while those who have not yet visited to experience our renaissance still may have their doubts, we should celebrate the diversity of offerings this community has and find ways to further support its growth.

The presence of a community-based theater in our downtown, our own community concert band, a new art wall, the quality of lectures and programming from the Androscoggin Historical Society, the stately mansion of the Women’s Literary Union and the riverfront setting of the Knight House and Shoe Shop by Auburn Heritage all contribute to our city character. They are testaments to where we’ve come from and position us for who we want to be. And that’s not even an exhaustive list.

Add to that an equity theater, a church-turned-performing arts venue, a film festival, an artwalk and a new museum prepared to rise from the banks of the river in Downtown Lewiston, and our community now has cultural offerings to rival most cities in New England. The only question is which rooftops do we need to shout it from and what role can our jointly funded arts agency, LA Arts, play in that going forward.

For recreation, I am excited to add City Hall to the list of places to which I can commute via kayak. We should conclude quickly that recreation and its potential along the Androscoggin River is another important focus for growing our community. In a state known as vacationland, the next few years will see Lewiston-Auburn and our major river becoming a major regional attraction for New England after the New England Governors’ Conference placed it as one of seven priority pathways for this region

Housing. This riverfront, and the revitalized downtown of Lewiston-Auburn, offers the backdrop to build a very attractive mix of workforce and market rate housing.

The most significant challenge, however, is the age of our housing stock, particularly downtown. With a depressed real estate market, it is becoming hard for private investors to make a profit and adequately invest in modernizing their buildings. Our new downtown employers, providing good paying jobs for professionals in the service and healthcare industries, could benefit from being able to promote living and working in the same neighborhood.

With no citywide housing policy, determining the right mix of market rate to low-income housing when providing public incentives simply does not exist. This leaves most new housing investments focused almost exclusively on low-income or income-capped units.

As has been stated by the Young Professionals of the Lewiston-Auburn Area in their downtown policy statement, “What We Stand For,” and by Lewiston’s own Riverfront Island consultant, our downtown area needs a greater number of market-rate housing options. In speaking with my counterpart in Lewiston, Mayor Bob Macdonald, we have agreed in the new year to create a Joint Committee on Downtown Housing to assess the existing conditions of housing in Downtown Lewiston-Auburn. We must identify the challenges and opportunities seen by those investing in or owning real estate there, and consider how we might set a shared course to improve investment in housing across city lines.

While in the past joint efforts between Lewiston and Auburn have focused on consolidating departments, I’m excited by the prospect of moving collaborative efforts towards shared policy making, regardless of city boundaries.

Economic Development. Lewiston-Auburn must be seen by those that live here—and those from away—as a place where creativity thrives and is supported. Small business development must be placed on stronger footing compared to the capacity of the cities currently leveraged towards industrial and commercial growth. Those communities that have built strong small business networks, and fostered innovation, have fared much better in this recession; Lewiston-Auburn must take that course.

Neither Auburn nor Lewiston has a council-adopted economic growth strategy, yet we both staff our own economic development departments and co-fund a shared economic development agency.

The limited resources at our disposal must be directed for maximum benefit. From financing incentives for locating businesses in targeted areas of downtown, using public funds to match private start-up capital or public staff support and business consultation, we must set a tone that entrepreneurs will become our backbone and that we are open for business.

This means a reassessment of funding for the Lewiston-Auburn Economic Growth Council, an investigation into services provided by the Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments and a review of the potential role of our regional Chamber of Commerce in supporting expanded small business activity.

And as we embark on these policy adventures, you can rest assured that all generations of Auburn residents will have a seat at the table, including the youth of our community that are currently students in our school system. If Lewiston-Auburn is to become known a community of choice in New England within 10 years, those future business and civic leaders must help shape their future city.

Because when a family is relocating to Southern Maine for a new job and is looking to settle in a community with great local schools, they will choose us.

When parents visit colleges with their son or daughter and see the vibrant community life that integrates our local colleges and universities, they will choose us.

When a business is looking to expand into the northeast, needing access to global markets and the trained workforce to make their product or deliver their service, they will choose us.

When young entrepreneurs are looking for a creative place to launch their new business and a hip city to call home, they will choose us.

The culture of low expectations for our residents, for our children and for ourselves must be put behind us. And the rest of Maine will know it.

If this is to come to pass, if Lewiston-Auburn is to become a community of choice in New England, we must believe that we can be that community and, in fact, believe we already are.


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