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Only Steps Forward: LA Arts integrates creative businesses with economic development

By Jonathan P. LaBonte

Mayor of Auburn

LA Arts has launched a new series called “Place for Makers” to highlight some of the creative businesses here in Lewiston-Auburn and to introduce them to not only local residents, but also those “from away” who may not be aware of their talents.

The continued evolution of LA Arts into an arts agency that integrates its work into the economic and community development direction of both cities is something to be applauded and further supported.

The Place for Makers series kicked off at Rancourt & Co, a shoe factory tucked behind Central Maine Health Care on Bridge Street. In the nondescript, interconnected buildings, Mike Rancourt and his team go about constructing some of the finest shoes in the world. You may have heard reports during the recent Olympics about the Ralph Lauren-labeled shoes worn by all of the United States Olympians being made in Lewiston.

While Rancourt was the craftsmanship behind those Ralph Lauren shoes, more and more of their work is done under their own name of Rancourt & Co. as they seek to grow their business and its bottom line.

So why would LA Arts be hosting an event with Mike Rancourt? Well, the design work and custom manufacturing that he and his team are leading the way on is cutting against what many of us have seen for decades: the closing of manufacturing businesses in the U.S. in lieu of making things cheap in China. What Rancourt is proving goes beyond the fact that many Americans will pay a premium for the quality of their shoes; it also shows that product development and craftsmanship is happening right here in Lewiston-Auburn with the work ethic of our local residents.

With support from the National Endowment for the Arts, and partnering with the Maine College of Art, LA Arts is encouraging others interested in making things to visit Lewiston-Auburn to see how much success folks are already having here. Affordable building space, affordable housing, a quality and growing work force and a number of flexible incentives to help with small business investments all make these types of businesses a possible growth area for our community.

Lewiston-Auburn was built on manufacturing, and while our economy has shifted with the global economy to be dominated by services and healthcare, the manufacturing tradition lives on, but often looks much different. Be sure to keep an eye out for the next LA Arts Place for Makers event to see for yourself what’s happening.

Of course, the Place for Makers series is one of a number of new programs launched by LA Arts to put Lewiston-Auburn on the map and keep us there. This week the inaugural Artist Days in LA started with the featured artist being Ashley Bryan. The Artist Days, being promoted by me and Mayor Macdonald in Lewiston, include engagement with our youth in the schools and public events as well. An award-winning author, story teller and illustrator of children’s books, Ashley Bryan is a perfect artist to spotlight and connect to the community with hands-on activities.

These two new activities build on the engagement of local businesses downtown in the ArtWalk Lewiston-Auburn, which recently expanded its footprint from the successful effort on Lisbon Street to include Main and Court Streets in Auburn, and the 2017 Auburn Winter Festival, where LA Arts offered a “pop up” café offering live music, ice sculptures and small plates prepared by boba, a restaurant soon to open on Spring Street in Auburn.

When arts organizations make a pitch for public support, you’ll often hear the argument that if their efforts are valuable, the free market will fund the effort. If that approach were extended across public efforts, you’d eliminate economic development staff at all levels, you’d eliminate business incentives, you’d eliminate public infrastructure when new projects are proposed and on and on.

In the case of LA Arts, I am seeing a steady stream of events, programs and projects that are directly integrating private businesses to showcase their products or services and to attract new customers to them and visitors or investors to Lewiston-Auburn. If these efforts continue, the return on our small investments at the local level will be significant.

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