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Only Steps Forward Despite new investment, economic challenges persist

By Jonathan P. LaBonté
Mayor of Auburn

While the last week brought public announcements of new investment in Auburn (Sherwin Williams, Krispy Kreme, and Aroma Joe’s), the most challenging announcement came from Cascades Auburn Fiber and their closure of the pulp mill located on Lewiston Junction Road.
It is certainly no consolation given the shutdown coming in mid-July, but in discussions between Auburn Hall and Cascades executives, the efficiency of the Auburn facility was among the top in the entire company.
Despite market forces and economic conditions for manufacturing in Maine, the employees of Cascades delivered high output and did everything that could be asked to make the facility viable.
At this time, the city has offered to Cascades to be available for any specific requests for assistance. This region is fortunate to have one of Maine’s most effective Career Centers based locally, so those being displaced and choosing not to relocate to another Cascades facility will have a very strong support system to help them find new opportunities.
An additional opportunity that may arise for the Auburn City Council, should they wish to pursue it, is the establishment of a city-based workforce development program. During the budget, funds were allocated to a program that would initially support early college programs for those in our public school system. Under state law, and with some further City Council action, those dollars could also be put to work helping displaced workers secure re-training for other jobs here in Auburn.
In an already tight labor market, the highly skilled workers at Cascades are the kind of workers we want to have in Auburn, and the door will be open to local companies that wish to work with us to support them in their search for new, challenging careers.
The loss of Cascades and other manufacturing in Maine does bring to the forefront some deeper challenges that go beyond city borders and can’t be influenced by Auburn Hall as much as they can in the state capital.
Despite highly efficient staff and equipment, the ability to compete against facilities in other states and Canada wasn’t possible. Maine’s higher taxes and higher energy costs have a direct impact on Cascades’ bottom line and in the ability to attract new investment capital.
In my time as mayor, I’ve sat with many manufacturers locally and across the state as they’ve highlighted the impact of our state’s tax structure and energy rates among the highest in the country. When these Maine-based facilities are part of a national—or international—manufacturing network, they struggle even more to show the type of ROI necessary to secure major investment.
Once, in a meeting where corporate executives were highlighting an example of energy costs making Maine an outlier for attracting capital against other states in the country, one legislator asked if they knew about Efficiency Maine and their grant programs. Such a comment demonstrates how out of touch some policymakers are, and it should give pause to voters. Elections have consequences that can be long lasting.
With the first focus on the employees affected, the city’s attention will need to turn next to the broader impacts of losing one of our top 10 taxpayers and the top consumer of services from the water and sewer districts.
In fact, nearly one in every four dollars paid into the water and sewer system was coming from Cascades. That could mean that on top of the recent double-digit increases, rates could need to rise significantly higher to make up for lost revenue.
If there ever were a time for the management of the water and sewer districts to sit with city management to discuss integrating operations and finding every last dime of efficiency, it is now. The taxpayers and ratepayers should expect nothing less before any proposal for rate changes find their way to a public hearing.
City Councilors have been asking what Auburn’s response to this closure will be, and there are many ways the city can be supportive and actively involved. Expect to see public discussion on this topic when the City Council convenes again on July 11.

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