Driving home to Winthrop from holiday shopping in Farmington this weekend, I was again awed by how much Maine is out there north of Brunswick and 10 minutes in any direction off Interstate 95. Sometimes I get so wrapped up in my work or in seeking news and connection on social media that it’s easy to forget how much beauty, life and community one can find on the roads running deeper into the state.
Most of my friends and associates — developers, planners, professors, municipal employees, and artists — and I live and work in Maine’s urban areas, and on most days my head is full of things like 5G broadband, “Search Engine Optimization,” and “Block Chain” — technology miracles that are supposed to boost our economy, even if we’re not sure how. I wonder if I’m thinking too little about the places and people and ways of living that have traditionally defined Maine.
We’re often reminded that Maine is a proudly rural state. But talking rural and walking rural are two different things. Our drive up to Farmington through Livermore Falls and back down through Mount Vernon surprised me — a self-proclaimed rural economy advocate and ex-patriated southern Appalachian person living here in what my wife and I call Appalachia North.
Most of what I saw on Route 41 has not changed since before the road was paved: buildings both solid and characteristic, but some maybe leaning a little bit on their foundations, and sitting too close to the road to feel like home anymore.
But there are clear signs of struggle — blue tarps on the roof, coarse plywood airlocks built on the doorways of mobile homes in the yard where grandma’s victory garden used to grow, and a row of failed vehicles in various states of rust.
I’ve worked alongside Maine business people and government representatives on indoor agriculture, new technology expansion, old technology business revitalization, and knowledge-worker attraction initiatives. These initiatives are great for “Highway Maine” but don’t leave much for rural communities other than entry-level and service jobs that still require people to drive hundreds of miles a week on cracking roads to workplaces with different measures of success than rural residents might otherwise prioritize.Should we measure success solely in terms of transactions, dollars, inventory turnover, resolution times and bonus checks? Or should we look closer at how Maine families feed and support themselves and their neighbors when we measure the state’s economic health?
And how much are we flatlanders who come to Maine for “new economy” jobs willing to recognize and incorporate the value of traditional products made in Maine’s rural places into our sense of connection and belonging? If we don’t know and never interact with rural people, how can we know the value of personal connections made at high school choir concerts, sports events, hunting lodges, ice fishing shacks, and the county fair? Do we know how much those activities weave into people’s cash-and-barter relationships?
Recent news reports about traditional craft businesses like a Christmas wreath maker that’s struggling from flat prices and increasing shipping costs, and the increasing costs and flat pay for independent plowing businesses, concern me. These seasonal jobs — driven by weather, nature and culture — are being replaced by Amazon gift boxes offering similar wreaths, maybe even cut from our same trees. It seems time-stressed folks are more attracted to convenience, packaging, and price than engaging a potentially awkward face-to-face conversation with an unfamiliar person.
We have a lot to learn about resiliency from rural communities. Perhaps the new gubernatorial administration will better understand than the last how Maine’s communities and their economies are inseparable. I hope that the state’s development agencies will refocus on communities and the desperate need for jobs and sector development to save our traditional lifestyles and places.
And maybe Gov.-elect Janet Mills will restore the State Planning Office that was eliminated in the last administration, and focus it on sustainable development and infrastructure.
I hope that as we rethink the role of the state government in preserving Maine’s rural character and economies, we also ask ourselves what we can do with our buying power to support our friends and neighbors, weave connection in our communities, and build stronger places by keeping our money local.