For at least a decade, the phrase “two Maines” has been a derogatory term.

It was originally coined simply to describe two distinct economic geographies — a natural resources-based region (forest, farm and fisheries) in the northern and eastern portions of the state (sometimes called the rim counties) and a financial and services-based region in the southern portion of the state.

However, as the forces of globalization have eliminated so many resource-based jobs in manufacturing in the rim counties, the term has become something of a chip on the shoulder of those in northern and eastern Maine — people in southern Maine don’t appreciate our problems here; we don’t get enough help from Augusta; people from the south aren’t “real” Mainers; let’s secede.

In response, people from the south have said, “Oh, no, no. We’re all really one Maine. We’re interested in your problems. We’ll keep sending sales and income tax revenues and federal grant dollars up north in the form of aid to education, revenue sharing, Medicaid, higher education and all manner of economic development programs. We’re fully committed to creating a unified, equally prosperous single Maine.”

Of course, this well-intended but financially puny commitment, particularly in light of the fiscal constraints created by the last recession, has been far from enough to offset the effects of a generation of technological change and global competitiveness.

Population, employment and earnings in the rim counties have continued to grow far more slowly, if at all, than in the south.

The most successful resources-based industries are those that have been able to capitalize on their investments to increase production while employing fewer but more highly skilled workers. And, at least so far, neither the entrepreneurial skills of the native population nor all the money and programs sent from Augusta have succeeded in spawning enough of these northern stars to offset the underlying forces of economic decline.

It’s time to drop the politically correct but economically destructive delusion that we can have one homogenous, equally prosperous Maine.

There are two Maines. We should recognize, accept and embrace that simple truth. And we should devise realistic strategies to build on the distinct assets of each region.

In the north, those strategies should center on improved resource management, more innovative business practices, expansion of destination tourism and finding ways to consolidate public services so as to overcome the diseconomies of scale inevitably associated with declining population.

In the south, instead of looking north and wringing our hands with worry, we should look south and rub our hands with anticipation.

The best way to build a prosperous Maine for the 21st century is to look to the example of the so-called Research Triangle of Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill in North Carolina.

We should envision a Northeast Innovation Corridor stretching from Durham, N.H., to Brunswick, Maine.

Where the Research Triangle has Duke and the University of North Carolina, we have the University of New Hampshire, the University of Southern Maine, the University of New England, Bowdoin College, the Maine College of Art, Saint Joseph’s College, Great Bay Community College and Southern Maine Community College.

In addition, we have the Maine Medical Research Institute, the Foundation for Blood Research, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute.

In short, we have a gathering cluster of educational and research institutions set in an environment that is second to none on the globe for livability.

It is interesting to note that the five counties I am calling the Northeast Innovation Corridor (two in New Hampshire and three in Maine) have just over 80 percent as much land area as the seven North Carolina counties that constitute the Research Triangle, but only 60 percent as much population and employment.

And, strikingly, they have only 54 percent of the earnings of the Research Triangle counties. But, even more strikingly, they have 72 percent as much of the earnings from higher education as the Research Triangle counties.

In short, we in the Northeast Innovation Corridor have failed to link our commitment to higher education to the creation of high-paying jobs as effectively as has our competitor region in North Carolina.

Narrowing that gap should be the overriding priority for economic development in southern Maine.

 

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

[email protected]