By Jonathan P. LaBonté
Mayor of Auburn
One item approved in this year’s budget sought to improve Auburn’s position as a great place to live. From my recommendation to the Auburn City Council and city staff, it did fall short, and I’m hopeful there’s still time to reconsider. That project was the retrofitting of one bay of the city’s maintenance garage behind Hasty Memorial into a meeting space for a volunteer senior citizens group. The price tag was projected to be about $100,000.
There was one resident in particular who heard of my concern about the project: former city councilor Belinda Gerry. The word that was being spread was that the mayor was against the seniors, a senior center and senior programming. And that couldn’t be further from the truth.
In today’s world of growing communities, it’s more about attracting and retaining people first and businesses second. A community that is home to, and provides support to, programming for people of all ages, but in particular seniors is a major attraction. From those who have lived their life in a community being able to stay and stay connected, to attracting empty nesters and retirees, there’s much to be gained by engaging seniors in growing a city.
AARP actually has a program to help city’s assess how well they do in helping seniors age in place, with everything from transportation and housing options to access to shopping and medical care, along with cultural programming and community building.
So with all this positive to be gained, what was the issue? Well, first and foremost, the city’s long-term plan, as well as its five-year plan for capital expenses, had never made mention of constructing a physical senior center. The project appeared for the very first time in this budget process. City plans can and should change, but typically this is done with public process, discussion and a vote of the city council to adopt that new direction.
The lack of public process means we lose opportunities to get feedback from residents, to find potential partners to improve the concept and to seek other ways the community could benefit.
The city lacks a formal senior programming strategy at present, which does make constructing a space for $100,000 seem a bit pre-mature. Was the goal to build a separate building for seniors only, to build expanded community event space or to just ensure there was access to space for seniors? And if it was to have a physical space, what assessment was done before determining that a maintenance garage was the best place to host programming?
If the City of Auburn is going to get itself into the business of providing for programming to support seniors in our community and attract more empty nesters or retirees, then we should determine what programming needs to be available, what other organizations in Lewiston-Auburn may already offer it, and then strategize how to fill the gap.
How are cities like Portland or Portsmouth, N.H. or Lowell, Mass. supporting programming that is accessible to long-time residents, but also attracting visitors and new residents?
And if there is a commitment to invest up to $100,000 of property taxpayer money in just capital, not counting the staff time and operational dollars, why not seek partners in creating a space that can accomplish that?
Here’s an example. Long-time community members feared, just a few years ago, that St. Louis Church in New Auburn would be demolished and the history of that neighborhood and generations of residents lost. Residents rallied together to raise enough money to keep the historic bells from being sent to Ohio and melted down. And then a small group of community-minded investors, operating under the name Pilotage, bought the church to spare it.
As those investors seek to attract capital to their space, why couldn’t the city partner with them? Rather than own a senior center, couldn’t we lease space to host events?
Our lease revenue could help the investors finance improvements that have been long needed, and could also serve as match to draw down federal funds to improve the façade and other aspects of the building. Since we wouldn’t use the space 24/7, the investors could seek other users for events or business activities.
A restored St. Louis is the type of anchor that could further New Auburn revitalization and be a destination for many, in particular our seniors. Facing the prospect of a community senior luncheon or performance in a maintenance garage or a 100-year-old restored church, which would you choose?