By Jonathan P. LaBonte
Mayor of Auburn
What is Auburn? Is it the “Hub of Maine” as one former mayor coined it?
Is it Maine’s City of Opportunity? Or perhaps folks know us as the place that proudly states, “We want development,” as you can see prominently as you enter our planning and permitting office?
Each of those monikers has a particular stakeholder that fairs most prominently; is it a hub for businesses and goods or people as well? If so, is it a place where investors are courted and treated with the highest levels of customer service, what about citizens?
It doesn’t mean that the citizens are part of that, but they aren’t the center.
As I’ve spent the last few weeks visiting with many of our growing number of neighborhood watch and related groups, I’d like to offer my own tag line for our community: “Auburn, Maine, the City of Neighborhoods.”
While we often see and hear debate about why we must focus on attracting jobs or businesses to Auburn, in a region and a state with a shrinking workforce, the concept of growing jobs and businesses has gone well beyond marketing industrial parks and offering tax breaks.
Perhaps one of the lingering failures of economic development locally has been this non-stop focus on the businesses courting and industrial parks.
We need to recognize our citizens and the connections between them as our greatest asset, and we must do what we can to support and encourage that to flourish and grow.
Those who know Auburn’s history know that the city we have today is really a combination of multiple towns. Portions of Danville, Minot and the original town of Auburn and how they blended over time still define the experience many have living in Auburn, even if we don’t discuss it.
Ask a resident of Danville. Or start a conversation about the neighborhood of New Auburn. Or engage with a long-time resident of West Auburn. The list goes on. It’s a real strength to have citizens feel an affinity for where they live and whom they live near. And that is a fragile strength, one that can be eroded over time.
Over the last couple of years, our Auburn Police Department has offered the neighborhood-watch model to citizens willing to sit and talk about law enforcement and public safety challenges. These are not top-down neighborhood delineation, but rather bottom-up definitions where relationships among neighbors exist.
In the Sunderland Drive neighborhood, they have met regularly at the new Sam’s Italians off Court Street to talk about what’s happening in their neighborhood and even have a new Facebook page to promote connections. Councilor Titus has watched their discussions, and after hearing a dominant concern about streetlights and the decision some years ago to take some down due to budget concerns, has initiated a review of that city policy with neighborhood input.
In New Auburn, the neighborhood watch recently met on the front porch of Warren King and Mary Story on South Main Street, where they learned the latest crime data and were able to ask questions about local street construction projects and the proposed affordable housing development behind the South Main Street fire station.
Around Lake Auburn, their group met at the West Auburn Congregational Church where they reported out on the clean-up event organized earlier this year and the successful fundraising for the construction and installation of a welcome sign for their corner of our community.
And while it’s not yet connected to a neighborhood watch, residents around Gamage, Goff and Hampshire Streets came together to talk about the reconstruction of Hampshire Street. That conversation made it clear that we must invest in infrastructure to position our neighborhoods for success, knowing that can vary between our in-town or downtown neighborhoods and our suburban or more rural neighborhoods.
Many have heard the saying that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Engaging and connecting at the neighborhood level is essential, but ultimately it’s about building up the entire community and understanding how these pieces all work together. I hope you’ll find a neighborhood gathering near you, or reach out so we can help you get started.
Let’s strengthen what I already know us to be. Auburn, Maine, the City of Neighborhoods.