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New name for Franco American Heritage Center in Lewiston sparks backlash

A sign for the Franco American Heritage Center in Lewiston, Maine.
Maine Watch with Jennifer Rooks
A sign for the Franco American Heritage Center in Lewiston, Maine.

The Franco-American Heritage Center in Lewiston has a new name: Riverfront Performing Arts and Events, Founded by Franco Americans. The president of the venue's board says the change was the result of an effort to better reflect its heritage, location and activities. But it's stirred some backlash within the community — and from the consulate general of France in Boston, who sent a letter asking to the board to reconsider its decision.

In his letter dated March 1, the consul general Mustafa Soykurt argues that the new name fails to reflect the mission of the center or illustrate the history between France and America in Maine. But Board president Elaine Roop insists that it does both. She says including 'Riverfront' in the name reflects the historical importance of the area surrounding the center where many Franco Americans lived.

"It helps to make us inclusive," Roop says. "And that is so Franco. Inviting, opening the doors to the public. That is in our nature to be that way."

Roop also says the new name "Riverfront Performing Arts and Events " will also eliminate confusion that some patrons expressed about the former 'Franco American Heritage Center.'

"The questions were, "Well, I mean I don't speak French. Can we go there? Is it a club?"

But the new name has caused an uproar among some community members, including Lionel Guay.

"I personally think it's an insult to the Franco Americans of this area who founded this center," Guay says.

He helped found the center more than two decades ago when he was mayor of Lewiston. He says opponents of the change may seek legal action.

"Riverfront means nothing to anybody. It's Riverfront. There's probably a half a dozen different establishments in the state of Maine named Riverfront," Guay says. "The name Franco American Heritage Center means something, and it stands out as a proud part of the city of Lewiston."

Dan Dube, an attorney in Lewiston, says his Franco-American family has strong ties to the center and both he and his father served on its board. But he supports changing the name, so it can bolster the venue's finances.

"I think we should not be presuming that the center will always be there," he says. "And we need to make sure that it always will be there."

Dube says he thinks changing the name to Riverfront Performing Arts and Events makes it more easily identifiable to people outside the Franco-American and Lewiston Auburn community.

Whether or not the center will keep its new name, however, is not settled. Roop says the board is willing to compromise and next week will consider adopting a revised name: the Riverfront Franco Center.