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Across the Androscoggin: A Push to Merge Maine's 2nd & 5th Largest Cities

A view from the James B. Longley Bridge between Lewiston and Auburn.
Susan Sharon/Maine Public
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Tell someone in Maine you’re going to L-A and they’ll know right away you don’t mean Los Angeles. You’re talking about the other L-A: Lewiston-Auburn. And while the name may roll off your tongue, these are two separate cities. Many times it’s been suggested that they merge. So far it hasn’t happened. But voters in Lewiston and Auburn will get a chance to decide this November.

The twin cities share a river, the Androscoggin, several bridges, a history as a manufacturing hub and a culture influenced by French Canadians who came to work in the mills. Lewiston is the second largest city in the state with 36,000 residents. Auburn is the fifth largest with 23,000. Their downtowns are separated by less than a mile. So, not surprisingly, they also share a longtime rivalry.

“In fact, it dates way back to at least 1823 when the bridge between Lewiston and Auburn was built,” says Douglas Hodgkin is the president of the Androscoggin Historical Society.

He says the chief stumbling block of the time was, on which side of the river should the toll booth be built? But he says there were also plenty of instances where the two cities cooperated with each other.

“In fact in building the bridge and then in terms of the trolley system that they established,” Hodgkin says. “They established the Lewiston and Auburn Railroad”

And when the bridge washed out in a flood the two cities rebuilt it together. Hodgkin says they developed separate identities, in part, because of a socio-economic reality.

“The mill managers lived in Auburn and other professionals lived there,” he says. “Lewiston, on the other hand, was primarily composed of people who worked in the mills.”

The 'Little Canada' Neighborhood in Lewiston
Credit Susan Sharon/Maine Public
The 'Little Canada' Neighborhood in Lewiston

And those people, of course, were French Canadian, Irish and other immigrants. The mills, many of them long vacant, still dominate the horizon in Lewiston. Some have been redeveloped. But nothing has come easily for the two communities whose combined economy declined by 1.4% according to a recent study while Portland’s and Bangor’s both expanded slightly. Another survey suggests that about half the high wage earners in L-A live somewhere else.

“I think the cities are at a crossroads. We need to grow. We need to think about what the future’s going to be for our children and grandchildren,” says
Chip Morrison, former president and CEO of the Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce.

He’s also a former manager for the city of Auburn where he still lives. And he supports a renewed effort to merge the two cities.

“If we don’t grow, we will die,” says Morrison. “But we become a much greater force locally and statewide together.”

At a public meeting in Lewiston Wednesday night, consultants for the planned merger said Lewiston and Auburn, conservatively, could see annual savings of between $2.3 million and $4.2 million. Property taxpayers, they said, could also see a decrease in their tax bills of at least $1,000 over time. And a combined school district? It would be the largest in the state. But the proposal is already generating skepticism.

“We feel the business community only wants it because they need a new brand for Lewiston-Auburn. They want to be able to call it something else to be able to market it. That’s the only thing we can come up with,” says Ron Potvin of Lewiston.

He is with the “Coalition Opposed to Lewiston Auburn Consolidation.” He says they have about 200 members and helped defeat a plan to combine some city services back in 2008. So far, they haven’t changed their position. Additional public discussions are planned over the next few months before a November vote on a combined city charter. A majority of voters in each city would have to approve for consolidation to move forward.

Residents of Lewiston and Auburn meet to learn about proposals to merge the cities.
Credit Susan Sharon/Maine Public
Residents of Lewiston and Auburn meet to learn about proposals to merge the cities