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LaBonte: How do you make an industrial city new again?

By Jonathan LaBonte

TCT columnist

A room full of people gathered in Downtown Lewiston on St. Patrick’s Day and, in this case, it was not to raise a pint of Guinness in honor of our local Irish heritage.

The Lewiston Public Library played host, as part of its Great Falls Forum series, to a delegation of business and civic leaders from the City of Lowell in Massachusetts. The topic: How do you take an industrial city and make it new again?

Actually, the presentation was a mix of laying out the history of Lowell’s development, a key factor in planning for any revitalization, and detailing how the painstaking and lengthy process of encouraging reinvestment gained traction of the last three decades.

For years, those in positions of power locally, and at times the local press, have offered casual comparisons to Lowell in selling the potential of Lewiston. And while sound bites about mill revitalization and museums and heritage may lead us to dream, that dream is fleeting. Cities aren’t built on sound bites.

The Lowell presentation opened the door, ever so slightly, to the key ingredients that could accomplish successful revitalization for former industrial cities in New England. They offered the ingredients, not the recipe. There has never been, nor will there ever be, a formula for how to grow an economy in a region with infrastructure that now dates back two centuries.

While one column this week cannot break down all of the ingredients from Lowell’s effort or suggest some method of assembling our ingredients to yield a similar outcome, it can begin the discussion and perhaps frame the debate. Because a debate has long been what the community of Lewiston-Auburn has needed to set a course for long-term private investment in its downtown.

For our purposes, let’s assume that most people in this community believe that downtown buildings and the old mills are just too expensive to renovate and might be better off torn down. Or better yet, that the close to 100 square miles of both cities combined offers plenty of undeveloped land for us to develop without the expense of renovations.

It is from that point of understanding that we need to rationalize whether the time and energy of downtown revitalization by supporting existing buildings makes long-term financial sense, both from the cities’ perspective for public infrastructure and from the private sector’s perspective of meeting their objective of making a profit.

At a whopping 15 square miles, the City of Lowell was almost left with no choice but to begin growing again from the center out. Its proximity to Boston and the large sprawling development in that metropolitan area found Lowell almost fully developed when efforts began 30 years ago in the downtown.

With budget deliberations looming both in Lewiston and Auburn, the threats of tax hikes or services cuts are certain to continue grabbing headlines. In fact, the City of Auburn implemented a new snowplowing system that leaves some roads getting plowed only every six hours, or less. And that’s just dealing with winter maintenance. The costs of repaving and rebuilding the countless miles of roads in each city are a major unfunded liability that’s looming with no means to pay for it.

From that perspective alone, it would be logical to focus on growing a tax base where existing infrastructure exists. Growing tax base does not always mean pushing for the construction of new buildings where there were none previously; it can also happen by helping property owners to increase the value of their existing buildings.

The policy analysis isn’t that simple, since some infrastructure in the form of industrial parks near our airport and rail lines, for example, offers a unique opportunity. But that is a strategic opportunity for Southern and Western Maine, not just for the Lewiston-Auburn region, and it flows beyond the Lowell discussion. If neither city can afford to keep up with existing demands, does growing public infrastructure into undeveloped areas make good fiscal sense?

The mechanics of growing the value of downtown can come later, and Lowell certainly offers plenty for discussion. Yet the first challenge here is one Lowell never faced in starting its recovery. Do we choose the long road of partnering with small property and business owners in the downtown, where hundreds of years of infrastructure sits, or simply take the short-term view and see open land as an opportunity for expanding development and with it expanding the costs for our city to serve it?

Before we can enter into discussions of what we might dream about seeing in a mill building, ranging from artists’ lofts to high-end boutiques, or what we might do with the canals (guided kayak trips anyone?), the community must decide if we can afford a downtown.

Of course, I wouldn’t be asking that question if an answer wasn’t to be offered. Lewiston-Auburn—and its taxpayers—cannot afford anything less.

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