American cities continue to drive economic growth, and Maine — while more rural than most states — is no exception. The Portland area accounts for a disproportionate share of statewide growth in jobs, reflected in the much larger metropolitan area surrounding the city, which now, according to the Census Bureau, stretches from Sanford to Bath.

Urban success, then, creates a dilemma for regions with smaller urban centers, such as Kennebec County, whose largest cities, Augusta and Waterville, have populations less than 20,000. After two decades of decline, both cities are making determined efforts to rebuild their downtowns, but taking strikingly different courses in doing so.

Augusta, as the capital, has a built-in mission centered on the presence of state and county government. While the eight years of the previous administration were often bleak, the city kept busy by improving its infrastructure, plowing back the tax proceeds from retail and commercial growth into funding for everything from sidewalks to new fire stations.

Downtown redevelopment has proceeded at a modest pace, aided by small grants, incentives to developers, and — for the first time in decades — a viable downtown business organization.

Waterville faced a different situation, and was harder hit by the nationwide decline in manufacturing and blue-collar jobs. Its leading economic development force is now Colby College, which has spearheaded a wholesale makeover of the downtown under its president, David Greene.

Colby is Waterville’s biggest employer, and, along with the growth of arts and cultural organizations, has brought new activity to a downtown that was effectively split in half by urban renewal two generations ago.

This raises an interesting question: Which city’s approach will be more effective in the long run? The differing municipal strategies are reflected in the city governments.

Augusta City Council meetings are quiet affairs. There are frequent differences of opinion, but councilors usually find consensus without verbal fireworks.

It took awhile for councilors to decide that a new traffic arrangement downtown, restoring two-way travel to a 900-foot section of Water Street, made sense. The changes will take place with the spring construction season, costing the city about $124,000.

Waterville required much more elaborate changes to accommodate altered traffic flow around Main Street, including diverting through-traffic down Front Street and making both streets two-way. The total cost will be $9.2 million for a package of infrastructure improvements, largely funded by a $7.4 million federal grant.

The federal support was, in part, a recognition of the college’s downtown efforts, which amount to at least $65 million in improvements. These include the recently opened Waterville Commons building, a hotel to be built soon, and other extensive construction and renovation along Main Street.

The scale of the new investments has created a sense of optimism that has, however, not been matched by the tone of City Council meetings.

There’s often a sizeable audience, but not generally because the public wants to delve into the details of downtown traffic or budget allocations. Last week’s session included a lengthy discussion of the council’s new meeting place at Waterville Commons.

City Hall, while an architectural landmark, doesn’t have enough room for a large public gathering, so the council meets elsewhere. There were some good points raised by the audience, chiefly involving poor acoustics; presumably, this can be fixed.

Waterville’s mayor, Nick Isgro, however, decided to make another needlessly provocative statement. He objected to Colby College’s policy against bringing firearms into its public spaces, including Waterville Commons, and said having gun-carrying supporters in the council room “made me feel a lot safer when people were threatening me.”

It appears that the mayor is unable to distinguish between heated debates and actual violence. We elect municipal, county and state officials precisely so they can settle disputes and conduct debates peacefully in public — and they do.

Instead of considering the substance of city issues, Waterville’s council is again focused on the mayor’s provocations. It would be nice if someone — the council chair would be a good choice — spoke up and pointed out that council meetings are a safe space, and that whether or not guns are carried makes no substantive difference.

The larger issue is whether the council is being distracted from the real issues that come along with any large-scale changes like those Waterville is now undergoing. A frank public discussion of pros and cons, hosted by the council and moderated by a respected public figure, would accomplish a lot more.

In the end, one hopes that both Augusta and Waterville will reoccupy a place in Maine that makes their citizens feel pride in their communities. Getting there, though, will take patience, leadership — and a real commitment to civil discourse.

 

Douglas Rooks has been a Maine editor, opinion writer and author for 34 years. He is the author of “Rise, Decline and Renewal: The Democratic Party in Maine,” and welcomes comment at: [email protected]


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