By Daniel M. Rothschild | Discourse
AUBURN, MAINE — Jason Levesque has a simple theory: His hometown needs more people. A lot of them.
“We have jobs,” the mayor of the city of 24,000 explains. What Auburn needs is people to fill them. This realization has led Levesque to pursue a development strategy for Auburn that eschews the current fashions of urban planning, undertaking instead a quest to increase the city’s population by a quarter or more in the coming years by unleashing the private sector to build 2,000 new housing units by 2025.
What’s unusual about Levesque isn’t just his people-first approach to growing his community, in contravention of the commonplace that municipalities should put jobs first (frequently by poaching them from other places), plow resources into various branding boondoggles and amenities, or seek to attract only certain types of new residents. It’s also that his approach fuses a populist pugnacity with a technocrat’s love of data—and a pragmatism that lets him actually get things done.
Auburn is the fifth-largest city in Maine; when combined with Lewiston, its sister city across the Androscoggin River, it’s the state’s second-largest metro area behind Portland. The city isn’t what you think of when you think of Maine: tourism is minimal, and the lobster-roll-and-saltwater-taffy aesthetic of the state’s coastal towns is nonexistent. In many ways, Auburn feels like a quiet Midwestern town; mainline churches and cupolaed Queen Anne-style homes dating to the 19th century line shady downtown avenues with names like “Spring Street” and “High Street.”