Sometime within the next few weeks, weather permitting, the Maine Center for Creativity and Sprague Energy Corp. will begin painting a second oil storage tank at Sprague’s South Portland tank farm.

Ordinarily, such industrial maintenance would hardly be noticed. But in this case, the design for the paint job is the result of an international juried art competition that will gradually transform the sides of eight tanks and the tops of eight more into a 261,000-square-foot “canvas” that will become the largest piece of public industrial art in the world.

The competition winner — Venezuelan-born artist Jaime Gili — will be in South Portland to discuss the project with interested citizens and to make a presentation at Monday’s City Council meeting.

So what (besides 261,000 square feet of tanks with some weird new colors) is the big deal?

The mesmerizing designs and new paint are certainly preferable to letting the tanks peel and rust out, but it’s still just a tank farm, isn’t it? What’s all the fuss about and why go to the trouble of an international competition for what’s really nothing more than routine maintenance?

The answer, I think, is two-fold — branding and community pride.

Why, you might ask, does L.L. Bean spend millions filling its website and catalogs with pictures of ruggedly handsome men sitting on docks, arms draped over their golden retrievers, gazing up the bay past their Old Town canoes?

Why does Down East magazine fill its covers with images of sailboats surging past lighthouses along rocky coasts and multicolored maples towering near white clapboard farmhouses?

Why does Oakhurst Dairy plaster its trucks with giant black and white cows beaming down from rolling green hills beneath panoramic white clouds floating across breath-taking blue skies? They’re just routine marketing pieces, aren’t they?

No, they’re not. All are engaged in the synergistic process of benefiting from and simultaneously building the brand image of Maine — an image of stunning physical beauty and happy, healthy, peaceful living.

If the Maine Office of Tourism had to pay trucks to haul scenic billboards touting “The Natural Goodness of Maine” across New England, it would cost taxpayers tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of dollars. Oakhurst does it for free.

In short, Maine and its iconic businesses share a substantial benefit in mutually promoting a positive brand for the state. Maine businesses benefit from images of rocky coasts and colorful maples because those images live inside the heads of millions of people outside Maine.

associating their products with those images, these businesses can make those people customers.

But rocky coastlines, rolling green fields and tousle-haired hunks with golden retrievers need not — indeed, should not — be the beginning and end of Maine’s brand image.

If the future of the Maine economy is to be more than a summer colony for people who look like they just stepped out of a L.L. Bean catalog, we must create an additional image inside the heads of millions of people beyond Maine. And it must be an image of a creative, innovative, artistically, technologically and culturally happening place.

And here is where painted oil tanks enter the picture.

For nearly a decade now, the Maine Technology Institute has been trying — with relatively small amounts of carefully targeted money rather than pretty pictures — to build an image of Maine as a growing center of technologically oriented research and development.

Similarly, Portland’s restaurateurs have worked diligently to cultivate the city’s reputation as a foodie’s heaven.

More recently, Habib Dagher, director of UMaine’s Advanced Structures & Composites Center, is raising Maine’s reputation as a center of wind-power research.

All these efforts embody creative activities that hold the promise for a more diversified and prosperous Maine. Creativity is not, at least not yet, as identifiably “Maine” as rocky coasts and rolling fields. But we can cultivate that identity, that brand image, if we choose.

If the millions of people who google or bing or friend the Art All Around website looking for an art competition, find an interesting city with good restaurants and a dynamic biomedical research environment, creativity wins. And the Maine economy wins.

If the thousands of residents and visitors who fly over or drive by an arrestingly beautiful collection of oil tanks say, “Hey, that’s cool,” creativity wins. And the Maine economy wins.

If recent graduates or recent retirees think, “Any place that makes an oil storage farm look like that must be an interesting place to be,” creativity wins. And the Maine economy wins.

And if we — the residents of both South Portland and Maine — support this branding effort, say, “Yeah, I’m proud that my city is cool,” we will win too.

We will come to see our city and our state not just as a source of jobs and income but as a home worth preserving and developing.

Just as pride in our natural assets leads us to enact policies to protect and enhance them, so pride in our creative assets will lead us to enact policies to protect and enhance them as well.

 

Charles Lawton is senior economist for Planning Decisions, a public policy research firm. He can be reached at:

[email protected]Rocky coastlines, rolling green fields and tousle-haired hunks with golden retrievers need not — indeed, should not — be the beginning and end of Maine’s brand image.