Mayor Jonathan LaBonté of Auburn, ME. Image via Facebook.
Mayor Jonathan LaBonté of Auburn, ME is working to help his small city compete economically and grow stronger financially, and he’s using smart growth strategies to achieve both these goals.
Auburn is a city of 23,000 people located 45 minutes north of Portland. LaBonté has served as mayor of the city since 2011, and he’s also a member of Smart Growth America’s Local Leaders Council, a nonpartisan group of municipal officials who share a passion for building great towns, cities, and communities.
With a background in transportation planning and policy, Mayor LaBonté has made better transportation options a focus of the city’s economic growth. He’s advocated for frequent, inexpensive bus service that will connect Auburn and neighboring Lewiston to Portland, the region’s center of employment, recreation and the arts. LaBonté says that Auburn is also looking at opportunities for bus service to Boston starting within the next year. “These plans are ambitious,” he says. “They’re as ambitious as they need to be.”
Rail travel is also part of this plan. As part of the city’s most recent budget, the Auburn City Council voted to focus all future investment and planning in passenger rail on Auburn’s downtown area. “That commitment is a significant line in the sand,” LaBonté explains. “It says we’re focusing on place-based economics and not sprawl economics.”
In addition to connecting Auburn to the broader region, Mayor LaBonté is working to make the city a better place to live and work. “People today are looking to be in a place. An organized social network,” he explains. “We’re looking for young, creative talent, and people are choosing communities that offer them certain amenities. And certain places are just known to be more welcoming, approachable—those are the places with storefronts and live music inside. Spaces that meet the streetscape. I think successful smart growth is development that helps people interact on their scale, that’s centered around people.”
That’s why LaBonté seeks to make its downtown more walkable and welcoming. Auburn adopted a joint Complete Streets policy with Lewiston earlier this year. “This really hits all of our goals,” said Lewiston City Councilor Joshua Shea. “It affects safety and economic development. We’re going to make things safer for people, and we’re going to make a better-looking city that is much easier for everybody to deal with.”
Underpinning LaBonté’s commitment to making Auburn a great place to live is his commitment to running a fiscally sound city government. LaBonte, a Republican, is quick to emphasize the cost savings of smart growth strategies. “Smart growth is a very strong conservative principle,” he explains. “If we focus growth in places with parks, trails, and infrastructure, that can help us lower taxes.” LaBonte’s message about the fiscal benefits of smart growth is resonating. That’s evident in the comments of community member Jeremiah Bartlett with regard to the Complete Streets policy: “If we get street design and construction right the first time, we don’t have to tear it out and change it later. We are going to save money.”