The recent census report should be hard to ignore. Maine’s population is not growing, in fact we are one of only two states with more deaths than births, the other being West Virginia.
Only three Maine counties saw population growth, and those are York, Cumberland and Sagadahoc, which make up the greater Portland labor market. Maine’s 13 other counties saw only declines from 2010 to 2012.
Stagnant population growth likely means stagnant economic growth. No developer will want to build stores or houses for people who aren’t there. No investor would want to build a new mill in a place where there is no one to work.
This trend is nothing new and usually fuels an argument over the “two Maines,” with the less populated rural areas expressing resentment against the growing areas.
But there are not two Maines, only one. Economic and population growth around Portland generates state taxes and benefits rural residents. And economic stagnation in the rim counties drags everyone down.
Maine needs a strategic approach to economic development that recognizes that we are all in this together.
A good place to start would be the release of more than $100 million in voter approved bonds that the governor has been sitting on — first for ideological reasons and now as ransom for his plan to pay back accumulated hospital debt with future liquor revenues.
Now that legislative Democrats have agreed to the broad outlines of his plan (the main difference is whether the state should borrow the money, as the governor suggests, or the liquor contractor should take the risk, as the Democrats propose), the governor should release those funds to pay for roads and other infrastructure projects that would improve the economy in the long and short run.
But that’s just the start. Just as farmers, shipbuilders and paper companies were drawn Maine in the past, Maine’s natural resources, if not the traditional industries, are the key to our future.
Maine has natural beauty and quality of life that make it a great place to visit and live. Investment in transportation and information infrastructure, along with research and development to build new industries will help Maine create the jobs that keep young people here and make it possible to attract newcomers with skills.
The census report should not be a cause for the usual fight between the two Maines, but a call to action for all sides to work together.