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Mayor’s Corner: Community engagement is necessary for community beautification

By Laurent F. Gilbert Sr.

Mayor of Lewiston

As this headline reads, it takes community engagement to beautify a community. This is an effort that the city council, city staff and I and kicking off in order to engage our community in working to eliminate blight and improve the appearance of our All-America City and, in particular, in our downtown district.

The group called the “Visible Community,” representing tenants in our downtown tenement buildings, approached the city council asking that the council hire additional code enforcement officers. As the city council has struggled with its budget, it decided to use Community Development Block Grant Funding to hire an additional code enforcement officer. The city council listened. It also heard from landlords who had complaints about tenants destroying their buildings.

At times, I wonder where the “Visible Community” is, as the areas in downtown neighborhoods are the those that this organization represents. It needs to not be an “Invisible Community” when the work in their neighborhoods needs to be done. You can’t simply advocate for city services and not become a participant. It needs to work in partnership with the city. Together, much can be accomplished.

The bottom line is that blight is clearly evident with buildings in disrepair. It is also evident that many of the tenement buildings are so old and have not been maintained that they have outlived their life span and need to be condemned. Certainly, life-safety issues come into play.

As a firm believer of “management by walking around” (MBWA), I recommended that the city council and city staff take a walk through our downtown neighborhood streets. One day last week members of the city council, city administrator, director of planning and code enforcement, the police and fire chiefs and I toured various downtown neighborhoods.

On our tour we found much litter; high and rank grass; disposed mattresses and furniture lying about; trash out on sidewalks in violation of city ordinance; overflowing trash containers; unsafe porches; buildings in need of paint and various repairs; among other things.

In some places, people were sitting on their front stoops where it was clearly evident that they throw their litter right there in front of them on the sidewalk and street. Gil Arsenault, the director of planning and code enforcement took many notes of places that were clearly in violation and they are now being addressed.

While walking, we also saw some true gems, where the buildings were in excellent shape, their lawns manicured and very inviting as a home. It was clearly evident that those people care and are engaged in their city beautification. What we need is more of that.

It truly is simple: if everyone did his or her part, we could significantly improve the appearance of our city. We will be making the effort to make that happen, either by voluntary compliance or by enforcing laws and city codes.

The community resource officers had already asked several landlords to mow their lawns. At one location where grass was over a foot high, the lawn had been mowed as a result of the officers’ request; now the children of tenants were able to enjoy it by swimming in a small pool set up on the lawn under their parent’s supervision.

One day I was driving by on Bartlett Street and I saw a woman raking leaves and litter on the street by the curb. I stopped my vehicle and rolled down my window and I told her I was the mayor and I thanked her for what she was doing. She said, “Just because I live downtown doesn’t mean I can’t have it clean.” I now drive by and we waive to each other and she has continued to maintain her area.

Another young mother of two children ages four and eight has joined our volunteer program and has offered to go out with a rolling cart which holds a trash barrel, shovel, broom, gloves, etc. She went out for the first time last week to pick up litter on sidewalks and streets in the downtown. She works about four hours a day a few days a week.

I went out with her the first day and we picked up litter on Adams Boulevard, Bartlett Street and all of Pierce Street Park. While out, I noticed that someone was reconditioning a boat and they had taken out all the seats and carpeting from the floor of the boat and other trash and placed it out at the curb. I informed them that they couldn’t do that and that they had to take it to the dump. They agreed to do it.

I also found litter around a restaurant and a variety store, and I asked them to clean up around their area; they voluntarily complied. The place where they were working on the boat also had litter in their yard. I went by later and they had even cleaned up the litter. All of this only took a few minutes, and the appearances of these places were significantly improved.

Soon the city council will hold a workshop to see what codes and laws exist to deal with these issues. If some are missing, no doubt there will be consideration of developing ordinances to deal with these problems.

One noticeable problem is that some properties are for sale or are under forfeiture and owned by banks. The lawns are allowed to grow without being cut. We simply ask that they mow those lawns. It isn’t fair to the neighbors and it would most likely help in their sale. For a small investment, a greater return can be realized and their engagement helps the entire community.

I have now started to write letters to owners of properties that are in need of repair, paint, lawn mowing, trash removal, etc., and I ask that they voluntarily comply with my request that they abate the issue. Their engagement can help significantly. If they choose not to comply and they are in violation of codes, then perhaps enforcement might be the next step.

We all have a civic duty to each other. If you know of properties that need this type of attention, I ask that you call my office at 513-3121 or write to me at Lewiston City Hall, 27 Pine Street. If you wish to remain anonymous, you simply need to say so. I will take the heat for you. That’s my job as mayor.

I will view the property and send the owner a letter and ask that in the spirit of community beautification that the property owner address the issue at hand. Much can be accomplished through voluntary compliance.

City employees who are all over the city every day are also being asked to report such properties, and I will send the property owner a letter.

Working together as a community, we can and will be proud of our accomplishment. Just think of how good you feel after taking a shower. We can feel the same way about our community with a good clean-up.

Sure, we have city departments to do this type of work. It is very expensive and we pay for it with your tax dollars. We simply do not have enough staff to do it all. Certainly, private property is the responsibility of the tenants and their landlords together. If we all do our part we can keep expenses down with great results.

Our public works department has done an outstanding job, working daily to improve our city appearance, and as I’ve previously mentioned, they can’t do it alone. Our city arborist has done wonders with flowers and shrubs throughout the entire city. What use to be a high grass field on the corner of Bartlett Street and East Avenue is now a beautiful park. I have seen brides and grooms there having their photos taken after their wedding. Transformations like this need to occur citywide.

So let’s get engaged and work to make Lewiston more beautiful than it already is. After all, it is our home! I thank you in advance for your anticipated cooperation.

See Mayor Gilbert’s personal blog at www.MayorLarryGilbert.com.

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