Opinion

Maine is lying to itself about the economic health of its cities

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For the past decade, we have been hearing about the supposed “rebirth” and “revitalization” of Bangor.

They have the waterfront concerts. New bars downtown. New, trendy restaurants. They have a new civic center. The economy is developing and improving, there is a new, chic, younger crowd doing things in town, and things are looking up.

As someone who grew up next door in Hampden, nothing would make me happier. I remember Bangor in the 1980s and ’90s when its downtown was dead.

Yet, at the end of the day, it is all an illusion. For all the “Bangor is back!” talk of some kind of Queen City renaissance, it isn’t reflected in the numbers. Bangor has lost 1,000 people in the past decade. Yes, Bangor’s population is shrinking.

I am well aware — and prepared — for the hate mail I will get for this column. Local politicians will respond, and describe all the ways in which Bangor is thriving, and they will point to all the things I mentioned above.

But while I happily admit Bangor is a far more interesting place than it used to be, the fact of the matter is that it is not growing, and it should be.

And it isn’t just Bangor, nor is it just central Maine. Maine people across the state have an amazingly inaccurate impression of what growth, development and opportunity look like.
While other cities across the country are building and growing, we have city and state politicians that claim there is some kind of explosive economic expansion going on, when the reality is actually stagnation and contraction.

You may or may not know this, but we are living through a remarkable time of growth for American cities. All across the country, cities that experienced declines in population in the latter half of the twentieth century have been growing.

Take Boston, for instance. In the 2000 census, Boston had 589,141 residents. In 2010 the city had grown nearly 5 percent to 617,594 residents. Five years later, estimates showed that Boston had grown an additional 8 percent and now has 667,137 residents.

The story is the same in America’s more forward-looking, prosperous cities. Austin, Texas, has tripled in size since 1980. Raleigh, North Carolina, has doubled.

But it isn’t just the larger cities. It is true of the smaller ones, too.

In 1980, Fargo, North Dakota, was smaller than Portland, sporting 61,383 residents. Today it has 118,523, and that growth was consistent across all decades. Fargo.

In 1990, Jacksonville, North Carolina, was smaller than Bangor at just 30,013 people. Today it has more than twice as many at 67,357 residents.

Same for Madera, California, which had 29,281 people in it in 1990, and today sports a population of 64,208.

Cities in conservative states and liberal states are growing. Cities in the North and in the South are growing. Cities in the East and the West are growing. Maine cities don’t need to grow by 20 percent per decade to be healthy, but they do need to grow. And yet, what have we seen?

In 1970, Bangor had 33,168 people in it. The 2016 estimate for Bangor is 31,985 residents. Forty-six years and roughly 1,200 fewer people.

How about the “economic engine” of Portland, which had 65,116 people in it in 1970. The 2015 estimate — nearly a half-century later — 66,881 people, a gain of only 1,700 people.

So why do we seem to think that Portland and Bangor are thriving and growing when they aren’t?

It is only because of their relative strength compared with the economic weakness of the rest of the state that they are held up as so-called “engines” of prosperity.

In Maine, we like to complain about our kids leaving for the cities and states in America that are actually vibrant and growing, yet we constantly stand in the way of almost all meaningful projects and initiatives that would contribute to truly growing our communities and making them places that young, educated, economically productive citizens would want to live in.

If we want that to be the kind of state that we live in — and I think all of us do — then it is time for a shift in our attitude toward growth. Maine’s character doesn’t have to change, but it is time for us to prioritize true economic development, and begin to say “yes” a little more often.

Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C.

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