In the 1940s, the economy in Lewiston, Maine, was thriving thanks to a booming textile industry. But when many of those factories began closing in the late 1950s, and the city’s flagship department store, B. Peck & Co. closed in 1981, the jobs and the people who needed them began to flee. The impact of this situation lasted for some 20 years, though Lewiston citizens and elected officials worked hard throughout that period to regrow their local economy. When nearly 1,000 Somali refugees began relocating to Lewiston in 2001, many people worried that the new immigrant population would be an undue burden on the city services and finances.
Fifteen years later, the opposite has proven true. New businesses, a growing local economy, a declining crime rate, and a younger, more diverse population (Maine is one of the whitest states in the country) are all playing a significant role in Lewiston’s economic and cultural renaissance.
“We’ve now tracked well over 100 different cities and 35 different states where refugees and immigrants have left to come to Lewiston,” says Deputy City Administrator Phil Nadeau, who has served as the city’s primary immigrant program and policy contact since the first families moved into the city in February 2001.
These immigrant populations and their workforce value, in a state that very recently had a poor population-growth outlook, will be of critical importance to the future of our economic development.
Nadeau estimates that asylum seekers, most from central and western Africa, now account for about half of the city’s general assistance spending in the coming year. But the total cost, in real dollars, is about the same as it was in 1990. The early fears that new immigrant/refugee relocations to the city would result in negative economic or crime rate impacts have not materialized.
“Though we do not have specific data that we can verify, we believe that there are more refugees working in this community than there ever have been historically,” says Nadeau, who estimates that roughly 15 of the community’s small businesses are owned by an immigrant or refugee, while many others make up a valuable employee base at American-owned businesses. Additionally, new arrivals own property and have likely contributed to the decreasing vacancy rate in downtown apartments. Even the children of these nonnatives are thriving. According to a 2016 article in the Lewiston-Auburn Sun Journal, 95 percent of ESL students graduated from high school this year, up from the roughly 53 percent in 2011.
The arrival of Lewiston’s foreign-born population and the resulting reversal of a 30-year population decline is notable given the recent news that Maine’s population is the oldest of any state in the country and is only one of two states where the death rate is exceeding the birth rate. “Those are not the metrics you want to be leading in,” says Nadeau. “Being viewed as a dying state or community is not good for business, it’s not good for economic development, and it poses serious questions about what we should be doing to reverse the decline.”
Nadeau believes that welcoming immigrants can both contribute to its population growth challenges and help improve the vitality of cities across the state. You’ve got to “try to become younger so that you have enough population in your community and state to fill the jobs that are going to be created going forward,” he says. “These immigrant populations and their workforce value, in a state that very recently had a poor population-growth outlook, will be of critical importance to the future of our economic development.”