LA's Excellence adventure

Having mended fences with its Lewiston-Auburn neighbors, Bates pledges to help create “a community of excellence”

By H. Jay Burns

In 1855, Bates founder Oren Cheney had a charter for his college, but no place to call home. As Cheney pondered various Maine towns and hamlets, an ardent suitor for the college, in the form of the growing twin-city community of Lewiston and Auburn, soon appeared.
Lewiston courted Cheney with especially sweet words and promises. The Lewiston Journal said that “the blessings of an institution of learning are like the blessings of light.” Dr. Alonzo Garcelon, the community’s foremost citizen and one-time mayor, promised that Lewiston would kick in 20 acres of land and $10,000 cash. Cheney, considering sites like Litchfield, Pittsfield, and Unity, chose Lewiston.

The school and the community prospered for more than a century. But by 1990, another leading citizen and mayor, writing in the same newspaper, would call Bates “an island” that had turned its back on the surrounding community. The relationship between Bates and the Lewiston-Auburn community had foundered. “For years, it was mutual avoidance,” said Professor of History Steve Hochstadt, a 20-year member of the Bates faculty and a former member of the Lewiston School Board. “Bates would run down Lewiston-Auburn, and the town would run down Bates.”

Yet another decade later – May 1999, to be precise – more than 200 community leaders and citizens would converge on the Bates campus to inaugurate LA Excels, an ambitious College-community partnership with the stated goal of establishing a “vision of excellence” for the Lewiston-Auburn community.

Gathering in the Gray Athletic Building for this first LA Excels convention, they would hear Bates President Donald Harward, the project founder and prime mover and shaker, call the effort “heroic in scope” and “one of the most inclusive” town-gown alliances in the country. Both mayors, Kaileigh Tara of Lewiston and Lee Young of Auburn – two rival cities that once mocked one another from across the Androscoggin – offered enthusiastic remarks praising the area’s cooperative spirit and the College’s involvement, as would D.W. Kuhnert, the editor of Down East magazine, which had just completed a glowing special report on Lewiston-Auburn. After the opening greetings, everyone broke into discussion groups. They talked about the community’s assets, such as the Androscoggin River and the growing spirit of collaboration. They discussed the weaknesses, the community’s low self-esteem and poor self-image. And they imagined specific qualities and projects that might one day transform Lewiston-Auburn into, yes, a “community of excellence.”

Above all this goodwill was a sense that Bates College – long considered an unapproachable island by many local townsfolk – and Lewiston-Auburn were embracing one another as full partners in this venture, and that Bates, for its part, had willingly staked its reputation as a good neighbor on making real the dream of LA Excels.

A decade or two ago, Bates and Lewiston-Auburn might have looked at one another and said, “I don’t know you any more.” Bates had grown from a regional college with middle-class students drawn mostly from New England public schools to a school with a prestigious national reputation, whose students were more socially and economically diverse than ever before.

The Lewiston-Auburn community, on the other hand, had seen its socioeconomic fortunes plummet. The area changed, and its reputation changed, from a hard-working, prosperous mill town to a downtrodden, post-industrial city defensive about its shortcomings and pessimistic about its future. Starting in the 1950s, the Lewiston textile and shoe mills looming over the Androscoggin River closed one by one. Those mills once provided 15,000 jobs. Today, only a few thousand of those jobs remain.

While modest alumni landmarks like Luiggi’s, the Goose, and Sam’s still remain in downtown Lewiston, neither downtown area features the lively retail and entertainment mix they once did. Banks, law offices, and vacant storefronts dominate lower Lisbon Street rather than department stores and specialty stores like Ward’s or Lamey-Wellehan. Upper Lisbon Street is a tired caricature of pawn shops and social clubs. Auburn, too, has seen much retail activity leave downtown and resettle north along Center Street, capped off by the Auburn Mall two miles from downtown.

For years the area has faced the brunt of in-state ridicule. The Androscoggin River became grossly polluted, prompting the wickedly satiric Wicked Good Band to sing, “There’s a river of no return, if it moved any slower it probably would burn.” The character “Frenchie,” a Franco-American version of Amos and Andy, was regularly heard on a Portland rock-n-roll radio station poking fun at the local ethnic minority.

Today, Frenchie is gone from the airwaves, the Androscoggin River is clean and rightly regarded as one of the area’s invaluable resources, and area employment levels are at a historic high. Lewiston-Auburn has an emerging arts scene, three cultural and community festivals each year, and a renewed sense of civic pride. A rare sense of political risk-taking marks community efforts to revitalize downtowns on both sides of the Androscoggin. For example, in the face of local opposition, Lewiston mayor Kaileigh Tara has been an outspoken supporter of city spending to help attract new tenants to the largest of the former mill buildings, the 1.2-million-square-foot Bates Mill. Even the Lewiston school budget, subject to a pyrrhic battle between the school board and city council in 1998 that nearly saw extracurricular activities cut, passed without rancor this spring.

But the economic doldrums persist, and while optimism reigns inside the community, no one outside the community seems willing to relinquish the perception of Lewiston-Auburn as a dreary, insular mill town. At the May LA Excels convention, Down Eastmagazine editor D.W. Kuhnert noted that when he informed the magazine’s marketing director that the editorial staff had chosen to profile Lewiston-Auburn, “I thought she was going to cry. Then she said, ‘Why not Damariscotta?'” – one of the umpteen cute coastal enclaves along the Maine shoreline.

The Lewiston-Auburn area’s average per-capita income ($20,939) is lower than both the state average ($21,937) and the national average ($25,288), while property taxes in Lewiston and Auburn rank among the state’s highest. “The area lacks well-paying jobs, and we continue to lose ground,” said Gerard Dennison, a senior economic analyst covering Western Maine for the Maine Department of Labor. “The area lacks a major employer to stabilize the economy, and we’re seeing a trend toward more jobs that aren’t 40-hour, full-time positions and don’t pay a living wage (at least $10 per hour).”
Despite the presence of Bates, Lewiston-Auburn College (part of the UMaine system), Central Maine Technical College, and Mid-State College, “the area has not seen the new industries in research, biotechnology, or technology to blend in with strong educational and health services,” in the form of St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center and Central Maine Medical Center, said Dennison.

As its economic prestige declined in the 1960s and 1970s, the Lewiston-Auburn community’s self-confidence sank. It wasn’t long before the stage was set for a growing set of town-gown suspicions as Bates, with a chain-link fence still circling most of its campus, flourished and became a national college.

“Students who came to Bates from outside the area were horrified by what they saw of the town,” remembers Tim Wright ’83, who grew up in Lewiston as the son of a Bates professor. “The Bates student body was becoming more affluent, so the disparity between what students expected and were used to, and what Lewiston offered was greater than ever.” Town-gown miscommunication ruled. “Lewiston wasn’t as bad as the Batesies thought it was, nor did the town have everything it thought it did,” said Wright, who now co-hosts a popular morning FM radio show in Portland.

“Bates College was in Lewiston but not of Lewiston. There was little or no interaction,” said Lucien Gosselin, a long-time Lewiston municipal leader who is now president of the Lewiston-Auburn Economic Growth Council. Gosselin remembers in the 1960s asking the College for space for a city staff retreat. He was turned down cold. “You felt as if you were trespassing when you went on campus.”

Kaileigh Tara remembers growing up poor in Lewiston, the oldest of six children. “For kids like me, Bates was a place that existed but was off limits. Batesies were people entirely of another culture.”

Bates has always been well regarded in the community, but a political pollster might describe the support as “soft,” because few townspeople had any connection with the campus. “You just thought of it as this asset, certainly not negative, but not really positive, either,” said Auburn mayor Lee Young, a 21-year area resident and former educator. “I remember when Bates opened up meeting rooms for United Way. That was the first time I ever planted my foot on Bates College grass, but it was 10 years after I got here.”
Not that Lewiston and Auburn gazed fondly at one another across the Androscoggin River, either. The two cities – gritty, Franco-American Lewiston and the more self-satisfied, WASPY Auburn – for many years welcomed the river as a barrier between them. Historically, “the owners of mills lived in Auburn, and the poor French lived in Lewiston,” said Tara. In the early 1970s, for example, as the concept of municipal cooperation grew nationally, Lewiston and Auburn city leaders set a date at the coastal Samoset Resort to discuss greater cooperation – such as joint purchasing agreements for everything from highway paint to rock salt – but Lewiston stood up its cross-river neighbor.

Yet a spirit of cooperation slowly emerged from those shaky beginnings. Today, Gosselin points to up to 24 intergovernmental agreements “that fundamentally try to improve services and efficiencies” between the two cities, everything from mutual aid for fire departments to having one water pipe, rather than two, extending from Lake Auburn, the cities’ common water supply.

While the tendrils of municipal cooperation quietly extended from each city across the Androscoggin, city leaders on both sides of the river hadn’t a clue whether political support existed for further cooperative ventures.

Around the same time, President Harward was getting a kick in the shins as his welcome from the community. Back in 1990, around the time of his inauguration as Bates’ sixth president, Harward arrived at his Lane Hall office to read a Lewiston Sun Journal op-ed article by then-mayor Jim Howaniec that decried the College’s lack of involvement in the community. “I used to keep it posted in my office,” Harward laughs now. “How did it feel? Well, it didn’t feel good. The clear message was that the College was perceived only as a place apart. Now, because of the nature of the search for knowledge, colleges have to be free from convention. In a philosophical sense, they are always ‘a place apart.’ But what I read there, and there were echoes from the conversations I was having all over the community, was that Bates was admired, but that we were apart from the community.”

As one way to address that perception, Harward began the Bates Breakfast Seminar program.

“The breakfasts created a familiarity and ease of communication,” said Auburn mayor Young. “You didn’t feel like, ‘I’m Going to Bates Today!’ but instead, ‘I’m going to Bates today,’ as part of what you did every week.” A growing town-gown ease developed as participants regularly engaged in give-and-take on local issues. At times, Bates alumni, such as then-Lewiston mayor John Jenkins ’74, Howaniec’s successor, spoke at the gatherings.

At one of these breakfast seminars in 1995, the head of the local chamber of commerce challenged Bates to help the two cities achieve greater cooperation. Harward accepted the challenge. He enlisted the help of Dean of the College James Carignan ’61, who at that time was establishing the College’s Center for Service Learning as a clearinghouse for the growing opportunities for Bates students to incorporate service, particularly in the local community, into academic study.

Carignan involved a fellow Bates professor with perhaps the deepest roots in the community. Doug Hodgkin’s ancestor George Hodgkin arrived in Lewiston in 1777, making the professor of political science the seventh generation of Hodgkin in Lewiston. “My grandson makes it nine generations. I guess we’re stuck here,” he quipped.
Carignan knew that Hodgkin, who was preparing to teach two courses, “Public Opinion” and “City Politics,” might be a valuable resource for the project. Hodgkin agreed. In the politics course, students prepared a 42-page narrative inventory of ongoing collaborative projects, while in the public opinion course, students polled Lewiston-Auburn residents and found a surprisingly high level of support for continued municipal cooperation.

To this day, the results of those two courses help support not only Lewiston-Auburn cooperation, but the College’s involvement in the cities’ destiny. Bates students, faculty, and administrators now tread a well-worn path between Bates and Lewiston-Auburn communities. The two fences separating Bates and Lewiston-Auburn – the literal chain-link one around the campus and the metaphorical one in peoples’ minds – are nearly gone. “Our work in 1995 was not only a landmark in terms of pushing forward cooperation between Lewiston and Auburn,” Hodgkin said, “but also a step that may have demonstrated to the community that the College has resources that can be helpful to the community in the accomplishment of its goals.”

Traditional volunteerism, such as participation in the America Reads challenge and sponsorship of regular read-ins in the local schools, is complemented by dozens of more subtle town-gown cooperative agreements, often established through the College’s Center for Service Learning. Recently, the College announced that it would provide access to Bates laboratory space and student researchers for a post-doctoral fellow at St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center. “Something like this materializes out of a spirit of collaboration between the community and the College,” Harward said. “They’re made possible because the College is poised to do it and is receptive to it.”

Carignan was the workhorse who used Hodgkin’s work to help establish LA Together, a municipal group charged with investigating further city cooperating agreements. The political legacy of LA Together is LA Excels, which Gosselin calls a “bright star that can pull together all these initiatives.” The cooperative bond can also be heard in the way the two mayors harmonize on the subject of collaboration. “What’s good for one of us is good for the other,” Young said. Tara goes a step further: “I’m a merger person. We’re going to wake up one day and be one community.”

Bates’ renewed involvement with the Lewiston-Auburn community reflects a national trend of increased civic involvement on the part of U.S. colleges and universities. “I remember going to presidential conferences in the early 1990s in which there was this clarion call for finding ways higher education could articulate the dimensions of civic responsibility, and how it plays in with the purposes of a college and the search for knowledge,” said President Harward (see “The President’s Column,” page 7).
At Trinity College, for example, the institution leveraged $8 million of its endowment to attract $200 million in investments to improve the once-blighted Hartford neighborhood. At Connecticut College, the school played a major role in attracting a Pfizer research center to the New London waterfront. Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wis., spent $50 million to buy 115 properties in the surrounding community. It leveled some (including the apartment building where Jeffrey Dahmer did his grisly deeds), remodeled others, and built new buildings on other sites.

While Bates’ partnership with Lewiston-Auburn mirrors a trend toward such partnerships around the country, Rebecca Conrad ’82, executive director of LA Excels, sees key differences in the nature of the Bates and Lewiston-Auburn collaboration.
“What I’ve found elsewhere is that a college tells the community what it needs and says, ‘We’ll do it,'” she said. “I talked to someone at another college, where they were planning to raze a poor neighborhood, and I asked what would happen to the families living there. He said, ‘I don’t care.’ What’s different here is that the Lewiston-Auburn community is defining its own needs.”

Kaileigh Tara, too, has heard of the aggressive approaches taken by other community-college partnerships, particularly toward poor neighborhoods. She is especially wary of how LA Excels comes to regard her troubled neighborhoods, where alcoholism is at 30 percent and one in five children might go hungry. “I am not looking to get rid of people. I cringe when I hear about cleaning out neighborhoods. I won’t even go there. We won’t send poor people away. I want safety. I want a community where they are empowered, where there are resources, participation, and community.”

While the hopes for LA Excels are lofty, it’s money that does the talking. Simply put, the area needs new financial resources to support any “vision of excellence.” Will Bates, like other colleges involved in community partnerships, step forward with its own money to help pay for the big-ticket, multi-million-dollar community projects likely to emerge from the LA Excels process?

When the time comes, “it is reasonable to expect Bates to be a financial partner in projects. The College’s leadership for LA Excels is clearly one that will call upon the College to commit resources,” Harward said. “We are already doing that. I’ve already been talking to foundations, generating interest and enthusiasm for LA Excels.” Harward has seen some 30 community leaders, from the schools, city government, and private companies, join the LA Excels steering committee. “In a way, we’ve put more capital on the line than just a promise of resources. The capital is called credibility.”

“LA Excels is about taking risks,” said Hochstadt. “It’s people agreeing to take risks. It’s about mayor Tara pushing to spend money on the Bates Mill with no guarantee of success. It’s also about Bates and President Harward taking risks. They’re lending its resources and time for something that isn’t only about Bates.”

“The challenge of LA Excels is that we have to deliver,” said Harward. But in a way, we’re already delivering. The delivery is in terms of the realization that, by God, we can control our own destiny.”