In the last gubernatorial election, Paul LePage argued that the centerpiece of Maine’s future economy would be in forestry, fishing and farming.
While there are some exciting new developments in those sectors, that idea was better suited to an election in 1910 than 2010. It perfectly illustrated, though, our tendency to want to re-create yesterday’s economy rather than build for the future.
Maine’s economy, in many parts of the state, has been on life-support for decades. What it needs is not small ideas found in the rearview mirror, but big and transformative ones that provide a jolt of electricity.
What we can learn from forestry, farming and fishing is to embrace the spirit of the people who first came here nearly 400 years ago. Facing far greater challenges than we do today, and against all odds, they eventually built thousands of independent small farms and businesses. We have to renew that spirit in our economy if we want to become anything more than a few islands of prosperity surrounded by a restless sea.
Transforming Maine’s economy will require five specific ingredients, all working together: vision, a plan, leadership, courage and organization.
Here’s my contribution to a larger vision, some of which I’ve shared before:
I see Maine becoming an incubator state that celebrates new ideas and products, while attracting not just visitors and retirees but also job creators who are a good fit in Maine. I see a bottom-up, entrepreneurial economy that isn’t waiting around for the next wave of mills. A place where our world-class brand evokes images that go beyond forests and lobsters and friendly communities to include exceptional products, innovators, inventors and rapidly sprouting small businesses.
The plan for achieving that vision is not complicated:
1. Refocus government economic efforts to support thousands of small startups and entrepreneurs rather than handfuls of larger businesses.
2. Move the conversation beyond boardrooms, business gatherings and hearings in Augusta to energize Maine people so they can help shape the future. Without broad public support, no plan can work.
3. Mobilize Maine’s education system to prepare a new generation of innovators and help build a culture of entrepreneurship, creativity and teamwork from grade schools to colleges to workplaces.
Those steps will require forward-looking and positive leadership at all levels. While big changes may happen from the top down in other places, that is not how we do things in Maine. Here, change has to happen at both the grass-roots level and at the top.
Many good leaders around the state already are hard at work on the next economy. They need good partners in Augusta.
The role of the governor, in particular, is vital. The governor’s office provides a unique platform for communicating a hopeful vision for the future and encouraging all of us to reach higher and do more.
We will also need to find the courage to embrace change, think in new ways and take some risks. America offers countless sources of inspiration for this kind of transformative change, from all of the founders of the country to leaders such as Martin Luther King and the people who start new businesses every day.
One inspiration is Thomas Edison, who is arguably the greatest inventor/entrepreneur we’ve had. While working to create the electric light bulb, Edison tried 10,000 filaments. He failed 9,999 times. Then he illuminated the world.
Finally, transformative change requires coordination and organization. We can’t pull in a hundred different directions and expect positive results. The next economy in Maine is already rising, but it is fragmented into sectors like agriculture, manufacturing, technology and creativity. Those sectors don’t always see themselves as part of a larger emerging new economy, all pulling in the same direction, and that has held back the pace of our economic transition.
Maine has many important and effective organizations working on the economy, from chambers of commerce and the Maine Development Foundation to an array of financing and technical organizations.
With respect to them all, we don’t have an organization that speaks compellingly to a larger vision for the economy, engages and mobilizes Maine people, from top to bottom, is independent of government and is therefore able to be an effective and forceful advocate for the next economy.
The moment is fast approaching for transformative change in Maine. It needs only vision, a plan, leadership, courage and organization. Then, Maine people will do the rest.
Alan Caron is the president of Envision Maine, a nonpartisan organization that promotes Maine’s next economy. He is also a partner in the Caron & Egan Consulting Group and is co-authoring “Growing Maine’s Next Economy,” to be published in the fall. He can be reached at email@example.com