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Only Steps Forward: Chamber, city government can work together to grow the economy

By Jonathan P. LaBonte

Mayor of Auburn

Over the last couple of years, there’s been much local debate about how much taxpayer money, and for what, should go to various non-profit entities in and around Auburn and Lewiston. As the argument would often go, you have to provide taxpayer dollars to these groups if you want to grow your economy.

Thankfully for this region, there’s one entity that does support economic growth—and it hasn’t been asking for taxpayer dollars: the LA Metro Chamber of Commerce.

Operating under a new name (formerly the Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce) and now under new leadership, the LA Metro Chamber has been engaging with support of member companies in promoting our region and supporting local businesses with networking, professional development and assistance in training and recruiting the workers they need.

Since she began just a few weeks ago, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting with new Chamber CEO Beckie Conrad on a couple of occasions and have been nothing short of impressed with her vision and energy.

While she was in her previous role at the Maine College of Art, I had the opportunity to work with Beckie as MECA agreed to play host to an exhibit in downtown Portland highlighting creative “makers” in Lewiston-Auburn, including Lewiston’s Rancourt Shoe and Auburn’s Thos. Moser furniture.

There’s certainly a stereotype about economic opportunity in our region, and Beckie understands the need to overcome it. This exhibit allowed us to showcase dynamic businesses that call L-A home, along with many of their employees.

One meeting I hosted with Beckie included other Chamber staff, tourism committee volunteer leadership, Dave Gonyea from CMCC, who is a champion of sports tourism, and city management from both cities. The Chamber had secured a grant from the Maine Office of Tourism to promote our region, and we sat to discuss ways we might align directions to achieve greater outcomes together.

For the Chamber, attracting more events and visitors, as well as strengthening existing events, is critical to local businesses and their bottom lines. For the City of Auburn, we’ve already made a commitment of infrastructure to sports tourism in particular, building the Norway Savings Bank Arena, converting Ingersoll Arena to field turf and even assigning a city staff position to attracting and cultivating sports and recreation events to bring outside dollars to town.

With the success of programs like the Central Maine Community College women’s basketball team, which won a national championship this winter in Pennsylvania, our community has opened the door to attract various levels of national competition by leveraging facilities already in place or those planned to be built in the next handful of years.

As Lewiston made the final decision for their new elementary school at Franklin Pasture, the opportunity to invest in upgraded sports facilities that could attract regional and state events was part of the discussion. That area of Lewiston is just a handful of blocks from Lisbon Street and the mill district and could offer significant spin-off.

Tourism development and sports tourism opportunities specifically are an example of an interest that is shared by both Auburn and Lewiston. In the LA Metro Chamber, we have a private-sector-funded partner that we could work with and, I believe, find success with.

Other regions of the country find that the public sector, in the form of local government, partnering with the private sector, in the form of a Chamber of Commerce, can help strategically invest in growing the economy; this could include workforce development, opportunities to expand transportation options from Lewiston-Auburn south to Portland or Boston or promoting quality of life to attract talent.

I’m optimistic we are embarking on a new chapter for cooperation to support business growth that starts and ends with partnerships with the private sector without needing additional organizations to do it. Investing in shared interests is always a wiser choice than investing to sustain a bureaucracy.

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