By Jonathan P. LaBonte
A certain romance radiates when you speak to longtime residents, or those that visited here from away, when they recall the heyday of downtown Lewiston-Auburn. They remember with affection the movies and shows in the evenings, the small shops and the large festivals that celebrated culture and heritage.
Beyond the stories of the experience along Lisbon Street, for example, it was the interactions with friends and family and neighbors that make those warmhearted memories linger.
When was the last time you heard someone share a tale of how fun it was to walk through a 200,000-square-foot department store? Or how unique it was to walk through a 200-car parking lot for chain-restaurant dining? Perhaps someone discussed moving to a city because of its robust industrial parks dotted along interstate interchanges.
In this 21st century economy, whether the people in positions of power here have admitted it or not, people are often choosing the place they wish to live, then creating business opportunities from that. The notion of the “creative economy”—which has not taken hold here—is where artists, technology workers and other mobile professionals are looking for communities in which to start their own businesses and interact with other like-minded young professionals.
Building an environment that is inviting to these clusters of entrepreneurs is a long-term proposition. Small businesses, ranging from just a few employees to a few dozen, form the backbone of the American economy. However, even as they are seen as the backbone, growing and supporting small businesses is a long-term and tedious process, requiring a level of focus and attention that spans elected terms of office. And this may be the challenge here in Lewiston-Auburn.
While they may not form an absolute truth, the observations and anecdotes don’t tell a promising story. The most significant efforts to create jobs and economic opportunity in Lewiston-Auburn have led to the development of a large, Big Box retail-and-chain-restaurant district in Auburn. Robust plans to expand Exit 80 would incentivize another Big Box retail district in Lewiston.
And numerous business and industrial parks are often supported through Tax Increment Financing Districts, where property taxes are sheltered in part or in whole from the general fund to support infrastructure at the development itself.
Of course, Lewiston-Auburn’s interstate location and proximity to a unique rail corridor that provides access to international markets must be exploited. And it must be leveraged because it separates us from other regions. Unfortunately, Big Box stores, chain restaurants and eight-lane intersections provide a cookie-cutter view that exists in most of the country and is an approach to economic development that appeals to community leaders wishing mainly for ribbon-cutting events that proclaim creation of a few hundred jobs.
As leaders from the City of Lowell, Massachusetts sought to grow, they first recognized their challenge of having limited space to grow in. Unlike Lewiston-Auburn’s over 100 square miles of real estate, Lowell, a city of over 100,000, had only a fraction of that. In addition, Lowell leaders knew that not far to its north, maybe a half-hour drive or so, is a sales-tax-free state and large shopping areas, like those found in Salem, New Hampshire.
With that understood, Lowell had no appetite to chase Big Box stores, both because of land, which the city lacked, and because of the reality that they would never truly compete on a large scale with their neighbors for that type of retail district.
With incentives for economic development at a premium, can we truly afford to bypass property taxes or subsidize certain costs that these Big Box projects demands? Even if we could, given Auburn’s existing retail district, can Lewiston or Auburn develop a large enough and diverse enough Big Box retail district to lure national retailers that already exist in Augusta, Topsham or South Portland?
Perhaps there is a lesson to learn from LowellÑor even from our large city to the south, Portland, which felt its downtown fall to its knees when South Portland grew the Maine Mall and attracted other large retailers.
Rather than grow in a way that doesn’t make us different, we should focus on ways to grow that will make us different. It will take patience. It will take a full assessment of our existing loan programs, our grant programs and our other offers of technical assistance. And it will require taking the long view.
The downtown property owners and existing small businesses probably already hold some of the answers that might help them add one or two jobs or maybe more. Those small numbers can begin to snowball. When was the last time we asked them?