There is hope for a rural Maine renaissance
By David Vail
The 2020 Census confirms that Maine’s “rim counties,” from Oxford in the west to Washington downeast, have endured another decade of depopulation and economic distress. But promising developments make me cautiously optimistic about prospects for revitalizing some of our high amenity rural regions.
Cautious optimism because hopes have been dashed before. A 2006 Brookings Institution report, “Charting Maine’s Future,” proclaimed that all of Maine, urban and rural, has potential for an economic and cultural renaissance, capitalizing on our exceptional “quality of place.” A flurry of “quality of place” initiatives followed, led by Gov. John Baldacci’s State Planning Office.
At the same time, I directed a Maine Center for Economic Policy project, Spreading Prosperity to All of Maine, which also highlighted opportunities for rural revitalization. The keys, we believed, were investing boldly in “lead sectors” like health care, tourism and new forest products, while shaping “amenity-rich” rural destinations to attract high-spending leisure visitors and also — crucially — new “settlers” like mobile entrepreneurs, skilled young people and affluent retirees.
Unfortunately, the Great Recession and Gov. Paul LePage’s hands-off economic policies nipped those rural development initiatives in the bud.
Back in the 1970s, George Mitchell coined the phrase “The two Maines,” and a snapshot today shows that deep regional disparities persist. Like many smaller metro areas, the I-95/295 corridor from Kittery to Brunswick has become a hotbed of entrepreneurship, job creation and growing affluence. In contrast, Maine’s rim counties have by and large stagnated, with populations shrinking and aging, employment and incomes lagging, and dependence on public assistance growing.
But it seems to me that with the COVID-19 pandemic winding down and the national economy vigorously rebounding, we’ve got another good shot at revitalizing large parts of rural Maine. Here are five reasons.
First, creative partnerships are reinventing iconic rural destinations to strengthen their year-round appeal to high-spending tourists — and new settlers as well. The Maine Office of Tourism, Maine Woods Consortium and Northern Forest Center have been catalysts for local stakeholders’ visioning, planning and investments in the Bethel-Mahoosucs, Rangeley Lakes, Moosehead, Katahdin, and Bold Coast-Cobscook regions. Positive results can be seen in amenities like Main Street beautification, broadband connectivity, trails and signage, new seasonal events and employee housing. Anchor resort projects at Saddleback near Rangeley and Moose Mountain near Greenville could be game changers for those destinations.
Second, Maine’s 10-year economic plan, backed by federal recovery funds and the Biden infrastructure blueprint, prioritizes key investments for rural revitalization, like high-speed broadband, telehealth services, home weatherization, public transportation, expanded childcare and school facility upgrades. Wrap-around support for small businesses, the heart of rural Maine’s economy, is central to the 10-year plan.
Third, innovative forest products are moving from the R&D pipeline to prime time, as exemplified by mass timber construction, modern wood heat systems, densified wood polymers, and biochar soil amendments. These will sustain forestry jobs and provide crucial markets for Maine’s abundant stock of wood fiber. Maine’s climate strategy will help move these products to scale and profitability. Although these capital-intensive technologies cannot replace the paper industry’s many thousands of high-paying jobs at its peak, they promise excellent careers for hundreds of skilled workers and beneficial spinoffs for many communities.
Fourth, Maine’s strategy to rapidly “decarbonize” the economy will stimulate rural job creation beyond the forest product sectors. There will be additional opportunities to build and operate large-scale wind and solar arrays and incentives to manage forests for enhanced carbon sequestration.
Finally, the COVID-19 pandemic itself may boost amenity-rich rural areas in their transition to a “new normal.” The rural housing market has boomed, as some city folks move to more relaxed and wholesome small town environments. Some entrepreneurs, for example in business and professional services, have relocated and some pandemic-era telecommuters prefer to stay in their adopted communities, where work can be part of a fulfilling daily life.
In sum, this time around rural revitalization is more than wishful thinking. But it is less than a sure thing. The amenity investments and economic innovations sketched here require visionary and skillful leadership, from the state right down to the grassroots.
Vail is professor of economics emeritus at Bowdoin College and a former consultant to the Maine Woods Consortium and Arctaris Saddleback Co. LLC.