SACO – City officials from Biddeford and Saco plan to use the word “we” a lot more often.

New Biddeford Mayor Alan Casavant and longtime Saco Mayor Mark Johnston want to start promoting the two cities as one, much as Lewiston and Auburn do but “even better,” said Casavant.

The mayors met at the Saco Transportation Center on Monday morning, along with department heads from both cities and a few city councilors, to talk about working together in ways that would save money and strengthen their image.

A twin-city power company, a joint marketing campaign and a downtown festival that spans both Main Streets were among the ideas for new collaborative efforts.

“There’s a perception out in the public that the cities butt heads and don’t work together,” said Craig Pendleton, executive director of the Biddeford-Saco Chamber of Commerce & Industry, who led the meeting.

Saco City Administrator Richard Michaud said that while Lewiston-Auburn is considered “the big model” in Maine for sister-city collaboration, he believes there are more joint efforts between Biddeford and Saco that go unrecognized.

“I would argue that we do more than they do,” Michaud said.

He mentioned the Biddeford dispatch center, which answers all 911 calls made in Saco. The cities’ economic development directors said they apply for grants jointly. The code enforcement officers said they cover for each other when one is out.

Still, the officials agreed there are more opportunities to join forces.

“I think we need to go beyond what we’ve been doing,” said Johnston. “Alan’s not across the river. He’s one of us.”

Casavant, who also is a state representative, suggested getting legislators from the cities together, so they have a more powerful voice in Augusta.

“From my standpoint, everything’s on the table,” he said.

Biddeford City Manager John Bubier talked about starting a power company managed by both cities. By using the Saco River as an energy source, the cities could offer below-market rates, which might give businesses an incentive to move into redeveloped mill buildings, he said.

Both mayors acknowledged that Lewiston-Auburn does a better job than Biddeford-Saco in selling an image of the cities. Bubier suggested Saco and Biddeford could buy two pages of advertising space in a magazine and have local companies buy spots in it.

“You can change the dynamic by repetition in the media,” Casavant said.

To build a stronger sense of community between the cities, they agreed to organize downtown festivals on the same days. They said that would naturally call for greater collaboration between Heart of Biddeford and Saco Spirit — nonprofit groups formed to help revitalize the cities’ downtowns.

Although it wasn’t a focus of the meeting, the officials mentioned Maine Energy Recovery Co., whose trash incinerator in downtown Biddeford has been blamed for discouraging development because its odors affect both downtowns. Bubier said Biddeford’s contract with MERC expires in June; Casavant has yet to come forward with a position on MERC.

Biddeford City Councilor Richard Rhames said Monday that the incinerator’s presence “screams low self-esteem.” He said that doesn’t help the common perception that the downtown is “dead” and never going to recover.

“We need to act at least as if we think it might,” he said. “That would be a great step forward.”

Johnston said that getting the support of city councilors will be “the biggest challenge” in making the collaboration happen.

“The mayors can work really well together,” he said.

Working with Saco was part of Casavant’s platform in his campaign to unseat Mayor Joanne Twomey, who served for two terms. Johnston said he had conversations about collaboration with Twomey and probably would have had more if she had been re-elected.

“Both communities are feeling the economic slowdown,” Johnston said. “The timing is just right.”

 

Staff Writer Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at: [email protected]