Council outlines major steps for Maine’s sustainable economic growth

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Article & photos by Ramona du Houx

All across Maine, communities have taken steps on their own to preserve their natural places of beauty and help revitalize their downtowns. Concerned about the future of their communities, due to the shifts in demography and development pressures, they have taken local action to ensure that their quality of life will continue. Despite financial barriers, large efforts have been undertaken. The Maine Huts and Trails system that just broke ground in the Western Mountains is an example of that entrepreneurial spirit. The trail will start in Bethel and end at Moosehead Lake. The Downeast Lakes Land Trust, operated and supported by local residents, preserves 342,000 acres, 60 lakes, and 1,500 miles of riverfront. Nine towns like Bath, Waterville, and Skowhegan have Maine Street programs to help revitalize their downtowns.

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Once some of the recommendations from the Governor’s Council on Maine’s Quality of Place are implemented, these communities could receive financial support and assistance from the State to help them in these economic efforts.

The council’s People, Place and Prosperity report calls for an asset-based development strategy aiming to use Maine’s brand appeal as a place to live, visit, work, vacation, or retire, to drive economic development. Asset-based development invites local people to assemble local resources and energy that, with state support and private assistance, will speed the conservation of landscapes and the revitalization of communities. The council intends to build upon what is already working.

"This report recognizes that we are not going to build up central administration. We are going to empower regional economic development, working with the grassroots efforts in those regions to sustain and support economic development," said Governor Baldacci (photo above). It’s a locally led, state supported effort. There’s a lot of good regional vision represented from all over the state in the report. Overall that’s how Maine grows, from the bottom up, not from the top down."

Richard Barringer in Maine, photo by Ramona du HouxAccording to Richard Barringer, (photo at the left) the council’s chairman, in the past economic policies were "located in the Capitol and administrated from the top down. The whole idea about this asset-based economic development is to get local folks to identify those assets. They will develop a strategy for strengthening it, protecting it, and marking it. They know what’s best for their communities."

Barringer is a professor at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service. "The state’s role will be to provide technical assistance, facilitation, and start up moneys to carry out those strategies with grants and implemental funds. It will help build a trust between state government and local communities, so the state can grow in the right direction," he said.

The state’s new approach all started when the acclaimed nonprofit Brookings Institute issued its report on what Maine should do to be successful in the global economy. Governor Baldacci embraced the outline of the report’s findings. In the report, titled Charting Maine’s Future: An Action Plan for Promoting Sustainable Prosperity and Quality Places, there were certain measures, which he had already spearheaded, like creating the Community College System, protecting more of Maine’s natural resources, and developing Pine Tree Zone tax incentives which have grown good jobs. Tourism, consolidation, and research and development initiatives were under way but needed a boost. The Brookings report, which gathered information across the state in a yearlong research effort, is the foundation for that boost.

Brookings has provided the documentary evidence for why the state needs to invest, for everyone’s future, in — Maine’s quality of place.

Maine has a globally known brand built on strong communities, stunning scenery, historic downtowns, and great recreational opportunities. Brookings said that this asset is under threat, diminishing Maine’s future economic prospects.Augusta, Maine, photo Ramona du Houx

That’s when the governor took action and set up his council on Maine’s Quality of Place, which confirmed Brookings’ findings and issued their first of two reports last December. The council made 15 key recommendations for a sustainable future, protecting and enhancing Maine’s Quality of Place.

"What we love about Maine — trees, lakes, mountains, our history — is also our chief economic advantage. Investing in new ways in our traditional industries — such as tourism — will reap greater economic rewards. Maine’s quality of place is important to our future," said Governor Baldacci. "This summer I saw the beauty of Maine from Mt. Katahdin’s summit and saw that Millinocket is the gateway to a park that attracts 80,000 visitors each year. I traveled to Asia on a trade mission and met high-level officials who want to make Maine their home in retirement. I know that the quality of this place and our people is Maine’s calling card to the world."

The report calls for expanding the Land for Maine’s Future program, working with landowners to continue to allow public access and establishing a permanent Council on Maine’s Quality of Place. The council recommends realigning state polices and programs to support development in built-up places. It also suggests that an increase in the state lodging tax and new state borrowing could be used to support development.

"Downtown redevelopment has traditionally been left out of the mix. There are great efforts going on now, with the historic preservation tax credit and with the effort to create uniform building codes across the state. The council endorses these efforts," said Elaine Kinney, a council member. "We’d like to see a bond to go along with the downtown revitalization efforts, and more funds for the Land for Maine Futures program, because these efforts have been underfunded. It’s not just about one piece of Maine, or two, it’s about an integrated whole."

The plan, which could take two years or more to implement, proposes a $50 million to $100 million bond.

"Our historic downtowns are just as important as preserving our natural surroundings. One suffers without the other," said Henry Schmelzer, a council member who works for the Maine Community Foundation, "They are assets we need to focus on for economic development, working with the people living in these communities."pcqweb3.jpg (22736 bytes)

The council envisages a unique statewide trail system which would draw people from afar.

"The Interstate Trail System will connect all of Maine’s many quality places, from Kittery to Fort Kent, from Eastport to Bethel. It will be an off-road biking and walking network for all Maine residents and visitors to enjoy," said Barringer.

The governor intends to continue to streamline government services and invest in innovation while the council’s proposals are undertaken, seeing them all working together to strengthen Maine’s position in the global economy.

"People are coming to Maine from all over the world because of what we have here. In terms of quality place, that’s strong communities, good schools, and an environment of clean air and water. People appreciate that, now more than ever. In the 21st century you don’t have to leave Maine to do your work; with broadband you can do your work from anywhere in Maine. High-growth businesses are moving here," said the governor. "This report gives us an important tool in our toolbox that will help Maine grow the economy, giving our people further opportunities to transition from the agrarian, industrialized economy into the information-based economy, so they can get higher paying jobs and benefits. That’s what this is all about. We have a wonderful opportunity to make this century our century."

Martha Freeman, director of the State Planning Office, agreed with the governor. "We are changing our economy to move further into the 21st century, but that doesn’t mean we have to change the character of place. We have to enhance the character that we have. The council’s recommendations do that. This is the piece that brings it all together," said Freeman. "We have assets in our beautiful outdoors, wonderful downtowns, and a labor force that is known worldwide. Maine really is the kind of place high growth businesses want to be located in. They want to live in the kinds of communities we have and enjoy the outdoors and cultural experience that we offer."Sen. Denis Damon, Commissioner of DOC Patrick McGowain, the state house in Augusta Maine. Photo by Ramona du Houx

Senator Denis Demon, (photo right with Commissioner of the DOC Patrick McGowain) chair of the joint select committee on Maine’s future prosperity, said he was interested and intrigued with the plan. "One of the things that we have been talking about is our quality of place and the importance that brings to Maine as a brand, Maine as a place to live, and Maine as an economy. The council’s work fits very nicely into the report that will be released from the joint select committee."