Opinion

Rural economic growth starts in Maine’s cities

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Earlier this week, Gov. Janet Mills announced her intention to create a 10-year strategic economic development plan for the state.

It’s a good idea — if it doesn’t fall victim to politics and the great divide between rural and urban areas.

The two most important things we can do to improve our economy are to bring more people to the state and invest in our cities and largest towns.

Now, before folks grab their pitchforks, and storm the BDN (Note: I don’t actually work in the office so storming the paper won’t get me!), I believe that it’s Portland, Bangor, Lewiston, Presque Isle and a few other larger towns that are key not only to the state’s economic growth, but also to economic stability and revitalization in rural parts of the state.

I also know that policies to attract people to Maine and to lure investment and growth to Portland, for example, aren’t likely to be universally popular. Why in the world, you might ask, should we focus on Portland or Bangor when it’s rural Maine that’s really struggling?

A 2019 report from the Brookings Institution said it best: “Today’s urban-rural divide has complex political, economic and cultural facets. Where urban and rural residents agree is that every American should have the opportunity to provide a good life for themselves and their families. Rather than fuel divisions by undermining cities to help small towns, policymakers could embrace a place-based economic agenda that empowers both. Put simply: the fate of rural America relies on cities.”

There are things that we know about Maine. Our population is stagnant and we’re getting older.
Rural areas are losing population while larger towns and cities are growing, though slowly. All of our population growth can be attributed to in-migration because deaths outnumber births.

We have low unemployment, but there is a great sense of economic unease among families, particularly those outside of southern Maine and Bangor. In Portland and Bangor — but also along the coast — it’s hard to find affordable housing, and Maine ranks high for individual student loan debt. The gap between the rich and poor is growing.

And we have not made the important investments — in education, transportation and communications, such as cell service and broadband — that we will need for the state to grow.
These all put strains on the economy.

Our highest economic priority must be to draw new people to the state. We can’t get by with the soft — and sometimes not-so-soft — prejudice against “people from away.” That means we need to welcome people from Massachusetts and Sudan, from Connecticut and Somalia, from Pennsylvania and Burundi. From Ukraine and Norway and Mexico and anywhere else that we can.

But bringing more people into Maine will be hard — politically and practically. We have to be willing to do the hard work to make it happen, and that’s a tough bite to swallow in a lot of communities and requires the state and regions to support service centers in a way they don’t now.

In the past, political pressures have kept economic investment from being concentrated. Politics as much as sound policy have driven decisions that have required every region of the state to get a piece of the action. That’s diffused the impact of the limited resources we have.

State economic policy should focus on those areas poised to grow and then work to make sure rural areas are connected to them so the growth can spread.

Those links come in broadband access, improved roads and bridges and a coordinated effort to bring communities together and not divide them for short-term political gain.

That’s easy for a hack newspaper columnist to write. It’s a hell of a lot harder to implement. But if we’re looking for broader prosperity and not just another dusty report sitting on a shelf, that’s where I think we need to start.

David Farmer is a public affairs, political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s 2014 campaign for governor.

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