In less than a month, voters in Lewiston and Auburn will decide on a proposal to merge the two cities. Signs that read “No Merger” and “One LA” are springing up in neighborhoods on both sides of the Androscoggin River, which divides the two communities.
This is the second in a two-part series. Part one: Lewiston-Auburn Business Owners At Odds Over Whether The Cities Should Merge.
Supporters of the merger say it would improve efficiency and spur economic development. But opponents are skeptical of the projected savings and raise fears of a logistical nightmare. Some also say it's a matter of preserving cultural identity.
It’s a busy weekday afternoon at Simones’ Hot Dog Stand, a popular gathering place in downtown Lewiston. Kevin Ferrar, who is grabbing a bite with a friend, says he hasn’t really followed the merger issue all that closely.
“I thought at first, when I heard this, that it was just sort of a gimmick to become the biggest city in the state,” he says.
But Ferrar, an Auburn native who now lives in Lewiston, believes that the framers of the merger proposal have both cities’ best interests in mind.
“I think the people that are doing it are doing it for good reasons. They’re saying they can consolidate services and save money,” he says.
The Lewiston-Auburn Joint Charter Commission, made up of six elected residents, detailed how the merger would be done in a draft charter and consolidation agreement. The services, budgets and staffing of the two cities would be consolidated into one over a two-year transitional period. Police, fire and public works departments would all be merged. And the largest school district in the state would be created.
Merger advocates say these changes would help the cities operate more efficiently, saving $2.3 million-$4.2 million a year.
“It’s supposed to save a lot of money but I find it hard to believe that it will,” says Rita Perrault, a Lewiston native.
Perrault says she’s concerned about hidden costs, logistical complications and political tensions that might arise.
“I think it’d be too complicated merging. The government part of it, they’ll have to pick people. They’ll be jobs lost on both sides, and I think it will create more animosity than anything else,” she says. “They’re still going to say ‘Oh, they voted for someone living in Auburn,’ ‘Oh, they voted for someone living in Lewiston.’“
And the historical rivalry between Lewiston and Auburn goes much deeper than high school sports — it’s based on class and cultural identity.
Beginning in the 19th century, the blue-collar, mostly Franco-American mill workers lived in Lewiston, whereas the more affluent mill owners lived in Auburn. Lewiston has historically voted Democratic, and Auburn Republican. And these issues continue to surface in the merger debate.
But supporters of the merger, including Denis Bergeron of Auburn, say it’s time to move on.
“I just think that’s something that will diminish anyway. Whether you merge the cities or not, those cultures will change because the population base is changing. I really — I just can’t support that. It’s hard for me to understand that, where that is coming from. I just think that we’ll be mending no matter what,” he says.
And Peg Hoffman of Lewiston says the benefits of a unified community far outweigh the cost of the merger.
“We really need that consistency. And when the politics are so fluctuating, it seems to me those efforts, they don’t go so well. And I think it must be very frustrating to people who have invested years in laying those foundations and building on them, to see it go away because personalities. That doesn’t serve either of our cities very well,” she says.
But Auburn’s Allan Whitman says that the entire idea of a merger is based on a false premise: that a larger unified city is somehow better.
“So why are we trying to create something here that it’s not? We should be celebrating what we are — a rural place. I know what big city living is, and I can honestly tell you I have no interest in waiting in front of a stoplight and watching it change seven times before I get through it,” he says.
If the vote passes next month, this would be the first such merger in Maine since Dover joined with Foxcroft in 1920.
Lewiston and Auburn have considered and rejected proposals to merge over the past few decades. Perreault says even though she’s against the proposal, she’ll live with the outcome.
“Whatever people choose is the way it should go and then you just gotta live with it and hope for the best.”
This story was originally published Oct. 20, 2017 at 6:11 p.m. ET.