YARMOUTH – As you read these words in “open for business” Vacationland, tens of thousands of our neighbors and friends here in Maine are suffering. Their hardships extend to chronic underemployment, limited health care access, poor educational options and for many, a loss of hope. For thousands of Mainers, this is clearly not “the way life should be.”
If you live in the Portland metro area and wish to maintain blissful ignorance of what many of rural Mainers endure through no fault of their own, then read no further.
For me, that was my approach for much of the last decade while I was busy building my business in southern Maine. Up until a few years ago, my Maine was limited to a few comfortable ZIP codes, the road to Sunday River and points south for periodic trips to Boston and beyond.
It’s often said that there are two Maines, southern and northern. This designation is as divisive as it is wrong. Maine’s disparate nature points to every direction on the compass, powered not by magnetic force, but by economic power. Urban areas now have it; most rural areas don’t.
Last week, I was interviewed by the Bangor Daily News about “Maine Forward,” an essay I produced that analyzed 10 years’ worth of Maine’s economic data. The headline chosen by the newspaper, “108 towns insolvent — Plan calls for Maine communities to close,” was only semi-factual.
While I did identify 108 Maine towns as being insolvent, at no time did I advocate that we “close” those towns. Also, the story fell short of conveying my singular intent of starting an important public discussion.
The data shows clearly that 108 Maine municipalities (out of about 500) have collapsed economically to the point where many are not sustainable without an even greater disparity in state budget allocations, which in turn reinforces taxation and economic barriers for the entire state.
In a nutshell, most of these communities, through no fault of their own, were dependent upon various “old economy” industries for many decades and are now ill-equipped to effectively compete for “new economy” jobs that tend to gravitate toward urban centers, where population density, infrastructural support and proximity to greater educational and health care services are core economic drivers.
All of this was born from Maine being settled hundreds of years ago over a vast land area with a rural economy dependent on natural resources.
To be clear, it isn’t my “plan” to close Maine communities any more than it is WCSH-TV’s meteorologist Joe Cupo’s “plan” to produce a blizzard. I was merely presenting a significant body of data that led me to the conclusion that Maine is facing a problem that can’t be solved by wishful thinking, simplistic highway signage, an angry governor or stubborn denial.
If we acknowledge our economic challenge in the context of a significant natural disaster, and not a catalyst for political blame, we can unite as a “single” Maine and meet the demands of our destiny. The longer we ignore various economic truths in favor of long-shot optimism, the further we drift from meaningful solutions.
A recent Bangor Daily News editorial suggested that “encouraging (rural) residents to move to more urban areas is uncompassionate.” I disagree.
In fact, speaking the painful truth and confronting the harshest reality may be the most compassionate act of all. What is the alternative? Another decade of decay, lost opportunity and multigenerational despair?
Government officials, journalists and pundits have the natural tendency, incentives and platforms to communicate comforting messages of hopeful optimism to their constituents; fine as a salve that may dull the topical pain and maintain political and circulation loyalty, while doing nothing to cure the root ailment.
Front-page news; We literally can’t pay our hospital bills while we’re looking for fiscal salvation from turbo-charged liquor fees, super-jackpot casino revenues and 6 a.m. green beer as Maine joins West Virginia as the only other state with more annual deaths than births.
Back-page editorials: Rural consolidation is a bad idea.
Nowhere in between has there been a suggestion or solution to our enormous economic challenges other than mine.
Let’s get away from sensational headlines and start forming detailed and compassionate economic plans for Maine’s future. Mainers are strong, and collectively we can tackle our economic challenges if we work together for our common good as one state looking forward toward a prosperous future, and not 500 communities looking behind, fixated on assigning blame for our past.
Stephen Woods is Yarmouth Town Council chairman, CEO of TideSmart Global and an announced 2014 Maine gubernatorial candidate.