By Jonathan P. LaBonte
Mayor of Auburn
The City of Auburn is embarking on new approaches to growing our economy and ensuring that the community as a whole benefits from that. While we are only one month into the new budget, and a number of newly adopted programs and redefined positions are still waiting to be established, we can all benefit from clearly articulating where we are trying to go and why.
A key measure of supporting business growth and attracting companies to a community is the level of education attained by residents. And, of course, there’s a direct correlation between incomes and whether someone has earned a degree or certification in a trade. Over the last 10 years, households in Auburn with children living below the poverty line and families needing food stamps have both increased 50 percent.
Our local school department has done well over the last decade improving high school graduation rates, but educational attainment beyond that has been flat. There are a host of factors tied to that including college affordability and strengthening aspirations work within our schools. We also need to think about how we attract those who already have degrees or credentials to choose Auburn as a place to live.
In support of young people and residents pursuing further education, the City Council adopted a budget that places $450,000 into a workforce development account using our Tax Increment Financing program. This will position Auburn to support young people in taking early college, geared towards career opportunities in our community, or even to support adult education graduates to continue on in partnership with local employers.
To attract residents to Auburn, feedback often received by me and others in local government is the need for more small business growth and more storefront businesses in our downtown and in-town neighborhoods.
For many property owners, the costs to upgrade buildings to meet today’s codes for restaurants, markets, cafes or pubs would be cost prohibitive given the age of the buildings and market rates for leases. To address this, a new program called the Storefront Traffic Accelerates Revitalization was created in this budget. It will provide forgivable loans of up to $50,000 to support attracting businesses to our empty storefronts.
A key component of a forgivable loan is that it will ultimately become a grant to help overcome some of those upfront costs if a business demonstrates over a period of time, in this case five years, that it has created and sustained new jobs and is still operating a business that is generating foot traffic in our neighborhoods.
In the same period we saw poverty levels grow, we also saw property values in our in-town neighborhoods fall, when other similar neighborhoods in other cities our size in New England grew by more than double digits. For a city that depends on property values and property taxes to support services, promoting a market that grows values where you already provide police, fire and public works services is key.
In this budget, based on feedback from neighborhood conversations, the City Council has authorized support for the first cooperative housing project in Auburn. Similar to the successful model we have seen grow in Lewiston, cooperative housing is a means to give lower-income residents and equity stake in multi-family housing projects. That ownership role in a building has been proven time and time again to increase ownership of the area outside of the building and can support neighborhood revitalization.
In addition, a neighborhood challenge grant program will be offered in our in-town neighborhoods. This program will call on neighbors, property owners and small businesses to come together to propose projects or improvements in their part of the city. The collective buy-in and relationship building this will help to support will certainly make a difference in growing neighborhood pride and ownership in the future of the neighborhoods.
Over time, we should be able to measure the number of new permits pulled at city hall in these areas, the value of those permits and the overall value growth as measured against the implementation of these programs. In addition, we should be measuring Auburn students completing certifications beyond high school and new jobs created through our small business incentive program.
More building permits. Increased value of existing real estate.
New jobs for our citizens. More opportunity for our youth.ayor