Lewiston-Auburn Business Owners At Odds Over Whether The Cities Should Merge
Next month, residents of Lewiston and Auburn will vote on a proposal to merge the two cities. Business owners have been among the most vocal cheerleaders of the idea, which they say would improve efficiency, reduce administrative costs and lower taxes — but critics are more concerned about what they could lose.
This is the first in a two-part series.
Gene Geiger has growth on his mind. He is expanding the warehouse of his promotional products company, one of Lewiston's largest employers.
But recently Geiger has had to shift his attention to an even bigger project — merging the twin cities of Lewiston and Auburn. He's is the chairman of a joint charter commission that has been working on a consolidation plan for three years.
He says a merger is the only way for both cities to prosper.
“Whether it be for our business or any business in this community, you can only be as successful as the people that work for you. And a community can only be successful and can grow to the extent that it’s got talent that lives here, pays taxes here and attracts businesses,” he says.
Geiger says that the merger would eliminate bureaucratic redundancies and spur economic development, saving the city at least $2.3 million a year. But just across town, Jason Levesque, CEO of Argo Marketing Group, has more than a few doubts.
“You don’t take two weak businesses and merge them together into a larger, better business. It only would form a larger, more weak entity,” he says.
Levesque’s call center is based in Lewiston, but he lives in Auburn, where he’s also a candidate for mayor. He’s convinced both cities are better off remaining separate, and that if there were a merger, Auburn, the smaller of the two, would lose.
“In a business sense, a larger entity would absorb a smaller entity. And I believe that’s Lewiston and Auburn,” he says.
Merging the twin cities would be no easy task, requiring restructuring of both governments and consolidating services, budgets and staffing. Only a handful of cities in the U.S., including Dover-Foxcroft in Maine, have done it.
But Rebecca Conrad, director of the LA Metropolitan Area Chamber of Commerce, says Lewiston and Auburn have an advantage: they share an economy.
“If we function as one economy, what follows? What naturally follows? If businesses on both sides of the river rely on citizens and patrons and the whole idea that we move back and forth across the river on a regular basis, what else could we do collectively that would make our community that much stronger?” she says.
The chamber is part of a vocal group of merger advocates in the business community. But there are some business owners who oppose the measure and who have largely remained silent. Levesque says he thinks he knows why.
“I do think other businesses might be fearful that some of the businesses and business leaders that have been in this community for 30, 40, 50 years now have come out for the merger, and they’re afraid to go against what they say because of maybe a potential negative impact on how they run their business,” he says. “I believe it boils down to a fear of retribution whether it be real or perceived.”
Other opponents have accused Geiger and other proponents of being “business elites” who are out of touch with the general public. But Sandy Marquis, a small-business owner, says she’s puzzled by such claims.
“I may not be as large as Geiger Bros., but we’re all going to gain the same thing,” she says. “In my mind, if you’re not somebody who is a business owner, I don’t understand how you feel that you’re going to be harmed by this.”
The idea of merging Lewiston and Auburn has been proposed several times over the past two decades. This is the first time it’s advanced to the ballot box.
Voters will have the final say on Nov. 7.