Following a day-long retreat on September 22nd, the board of the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce voted to support the merger of Lewiston and Auburn. “The decision to take a position followed several months of conversation at the board level,” said Beckie Conrad, Chamber president, “and took into account a survey of the membership earlier this summer about the merger that found 63% in favor of combining the cities and 15% undecided.” She continued, “The board’s vote followed a morning of discussion reviewing the Chamber’s mission, its current initiatives and how those initiatives support the two key results we heard from our business climate survey where owners and directors of our member businesses and organizations were asked for the most important issues facing them today. Overwhelmingly, the business climate survey showed that the barriers to an even stronger local economy are workforce development and local image and that the Chamber has a role to play in both areas.”
The retreat was designed to define the Chamber’s leadership role in the Lewiston Auburn metropolitan region and decide if member priorities and the Chamber’s mission were being met. Given the number of members who cited a workforce deficit and fostering a more positive image as pressing needs, the merger was slated as a separate topic in the afternoon to consider how combining the two cities might have an impact on these issues. Board Chair, Robin Robbins commented, “As part of being a leader in the community we must be innovative as well as recognizing and supporting opportunities that move our region forward.”
Prior to considering the merger, the board looked at new ways to serve and promote the Lewiston Auburn metro region by transitioning from membership to “investment” in Chamber priorities that will benefit new strategies of regional economic development and tourism, both designed to make the area a more desirable place to live, work and visit. Conrad said that the conversation was thoughtful and difficult at times and that getting to the core of the Chamber’s work to best support both the membership and the larger community brought up many questions about the role of a Chamber of Commerce. She shared research on Chambers in other communities where economic development, tourism and image campaigns were key priorities to drive change.
Following the morning presentations and discussions, the board then addressed the Chamber’s leadership role as the largest organization in the area that encompasses businesses, nonprofit organizations and government agencies. Of the more than 1050 members, 89% are from the for-profit sector, 10% from the not-for-profit sector and 1% from government. “We all agreed,” Conrad said, “that Lewiston and Auburn are one economy. Business does not stop on the bridges and in all actuality our greatest strength is that the community functions as a large regional economic engine for Central Maine.”
“Ultimately,” Conrad continued, “that was the basis for the board’s decision to support the merger. If we function as one economy, what naturally follows? Do we currently have a consistent, coordinated and unified long term approach to preK-16 education, workforce development, urban housing, planning, and public investment to grow our economy and encourage private investment, both local and from outside investors? We all acknowledged that meeting those priorities is possible—as it has been for years—if we keep trying as two cities but that if we merge, a unified approach will be required. Fundamentally, I believe the board considered the issue as they would for their own business or organization. When an opportunity to be stronger is presented, the risks and rewards are weighed and a decision to move forward occurs.”
Prior to the vote, many board members spoke passionately that the merger was the right move, and in response for her to share her own opinion, Conrad said, “I’ve lived here 39 years, owned two businesses, worked in higher education and volunteered for numerous social service, arts and civic organizations tasked with joint projects. But no matter how hard each of us has worked, and no matter how committed we are to change, the fact is we have not made the progress we want on poverty, graduation rates, our image—all things that have an influence on business. So as president of the Chamber, I believe we need a catalyst beyond staying the cooperative but separate course and hoping we’ll pick up the pace. The merger is the opportunity to drive us. To engage all of the good hearts and minds on both sides of the river to work together across the next decade to realize Lewiston-Auburn’s unique attributes as Maine’s best place to live, work and play.”
Robin Robbins added, “The board recognizes that a merger of the twin cities is the first step toward a stronger future. It will require engagement from businesses, organizations, civic leaders and residents all working in unison to develop a more vibrant Central Maine economy. The LA Metro Chamber is prepared to be a leader in ensuring that one merged community will be successful.”