By Jonathan P. LaBonté
Mayor of Auburn
For the third year in a row, our community played host to the BuildMaine conference.
This event, the only one of its kind in Maine, focuses on strategies for communities to attract investment and grow value and models for individuals to enter the field of real estate development.
It’s timely that such a convening happens as we wrap up the budget process in Auburn, as one of the biggest challenges facing the City Council is that real estate value growth in Auburn has not kept pace with growth in other New England cities over the last generation.
An event that connects the real estate community and the public sector, along with citizens, is rare to find. The City of Auburn has been an active supporter since year one, and our support ensures that not only staff, but elected officials and city volunteers like those on our Planning Board, can attend and learn from their peers.
While the message each year is consistent, new speakers and workshops help to bring a fresh perspective. It has been proven by studies of cites that areas that are home to storefronts, that have attractive, inviting sidewalks, that include public spaces like plazas, parks and trails, and that offer places to live within walking distance grow faster.
And in Auburn, we want to grow. And grow while doing our best to hold the line on taxes.
There is much we have learned from this BuildMaine event about how to do just that; grow while holding the line on taxes. A key way we can do this is to focus on how to grow the value of existing buildings, businesses and neighborhoods where we already provide services.
If we can help support investment in New Auburn, for example, we can grow the value of a neighborhood where we already plow the roads, provide police and fire protection and educate our children.
Other approaches to growth mean an expansion of government services. A city-subsidized business park means city taxes go into the project itself and then we add new water lines, new sewer lines, and new roads along with more area for police coverage and further runs for our fire equipment.
While some still advocate for this approach, most successful cities have long since moved away from this level of subsidy and competition with the private sector.
During this budget process, city staff have brought to the City Council a re-alignment of city departments to better position us to grow value in our existing neighborhoods. That means we need less administration and can invest more in specialized staff support.
Two of those re-purposed positions will focus squarely on helping neighborhoods to improve.
No one wants to hear someone say, “I’m from Auburn Hall and I’m here to help.” Instead, we will be able to focus on challenges and opportunities we hear directly from residents and property owners because we will have people focused on just that.
Several new investments in this year’s budget will assist with that. One major investment is the reconstruction of Hampshire Street. While we secured a state grant to fund the roadwork, the city has prioritized a federal grant to ensure that from Gamage Avenue to Turner Street, we will be a new Hampshire Street for the neighborhood, not just the cars on the road.
A key lesson from BuildMaine has been that to grow value you need to build streets for all users, and in the Union Street/PAL Center neighborhood, there are lots of folks that walk to Gowell’s Market, to the PAL Center and to our parks and trails.
Another program is the Neighborhood Challenge program, modeled after a very successful effort in Geneva, N.Y. The program will encourage neighbors to come together to propose an improvement in their area of the city. The top ideas will secure grant funding to implement it.
Rather than solutions and improvements coming down from City Hall, we will be empowering residents to propose ways to improve their area of the city.
And lastly, a new incentive program has been created, focused on our small businesses and providing them a reason to expand or re-locate into storefronts. For too long, City Councils have been sold on incentives for big business, now we’re focusing on our small businesses.
Good things are coming for economic growth in Auburn.