An attempt to merge the cities of Lewiston and Auburn went down in flames Tuesday night as voters handily rejected a measure to consolidate the two municipalities.

The unofficial results showed it lost 6,540-3,315 in Lewiston and 6,330-1,202 in Auburn.

A merger of the two cities, whose combined population makes it Maine’s second-largest metropolitan area behind Portland, has been discussed for years. If it had succeeded, the measure would have initiated a two-year transition process and led to a new city starting on Jan. 2, 2020.

The initiative, which had been studied by a special commission for months, spawned fierce debates. Supporters argued it would save money for residents of both cities, and the unified city could attract more young professionals to fill a workforce shortage. Opponents worried about losing a sense of identity and questioned whether the savings would materialize as promised.

The merger question had been hotly debated since early 2017, as the Lewiston-Auburn Joint Charter Commission worked through the rarely used consolidation process stipulated by state law. As the commission moved forward with plans to hold a referendum, two opposing campaigns emerged. The race became emotional and divisive.

One LA, supporting the consolidation effort, has said a merger would allow the two cities to develop a single economic strategy, thus boosting economic development. The campaign also pushed the contents of a consultant’s study that said cutting various municipal staff positions would lead to savings of between $2.3 and $4.2 million annually.

It would have also created the largest school district in Maine.

‘I LIKE IT THE WAY IT IS’

However, the Coalition Opposed to Lewiston-Auburn Consolidation disputed nearly every facet of One LA’s campaign, stating that the merger would end up costing taxpayers while erasing hundreds of years’ worth of history and identity.

Divided opinions on the measure were evident at the polling places Tuesday.

“I’ve lived in Auburn for 30 years. I like it the way it is,” said resident Elaine Bilodeau. If the two cities got together, she predicted, one would take over the other. “It’s not worth it. You get each other’s problems.”

Across the Androscoggin River, longtime Lewiston resident Noella Breton agreed.

“I’m not for the merger,” she said. “We’re doing enough with Auburn already. We don’t need to go through this. Lewiston is Lewiston, Auburn is Auburn.”

TURNOUT WAS STRONG

But others disagreed, saying they could see the advantages of merging.

Ridwan Ali of Lewiston, who was voting for the first time since becoming a citizen two years ago, said he voted for the merger because he’d like to see the two communities become one city. Another voter, Said Mohamud, chimed in, saying he voted yes “to support the consolidation of Lewiston and Auburn.”

Voting officials in both cities said turnout was strong throughout the day.

“We expected a very large turnout due to the issue on the local ballot, but it probably will pick up closer to dinnertime, because it always does,” said Lewiston City Clerk Kathy Montejo.

Among the many disagreements dogging the proposed merger was the cost of transitioning to one city. According to Gene Geiger, who chaired the commission, those costs were not likely to reach $3 million, while opponents of the merger estimated it would be closer to $5 million. Associated costs would have included paying for the severance of some employees, moving costs, IT services and creating parity between union contracts.

Gov. Paul LePage, who grew up in Lewiston, had said he supported the merger and suggested that a state government efficiency fund could offset some of the transition costs.

Staff Writer Bonnie Washuk contributed to this report.