Maine is on the cusp of great things. Our economy is slowly transitioning from a reliance on natural resource extraction to a place of new ideas and products.
Driven by entrepreneurs and innovation, the next economy is beginning to sprout all around us, shooting out of the soil from York County and the mountains of western Maine to the open fields of Aroostook and the harbors of the midcoast.
Its arrival is not being announced with giant brick mills and impressive buildings but in nooks and crannies and small towns and living rooms.
It is an economy that is more decentralized than the last one, comprised of hundreds if not thousands of smaller parts. It is like a jigsaw puzzle with the pieces still in a box, awaiting assembly so we can see its full picture.
This new economy offers our best hope in decades of a more prosperous future for the people of Maine. It gives us the chance to reinvent Maine into a magnet for small business, innovation and creative enterprises and a place where startups are helped along, where entrepreneurs are celebrated and new ideas are given space to grow.
But the story of the next economy has to be told.
I’ve been in the “change” business, one way after another, since I left high school in the ninth grade. I’ve worked in mills that were shipping themselves south. Built houses where population was growing and helped take them down where it wasn’t. And I’ve had the good fortune to participate in a long list of companies, organizations and campaigns to improve the lives of Maine people, plan for the future and grow the next economy.
Here is the most important lesson I’ve learned along the way. Transformative change requires vision, a plan, leadership and organization. Having just two or three of those things won’t work and never has. Here’s what we need:
A VISION OF THE NEXT ECONOMY
Maine has suffered for decades from not having a picture in our heads of what the next economy looks like. Without that, we can’t seize the opportunities before us, instead clinging to the last economy out of fear of the unknown, looking backward rather than ahead and pulling in different directions.
We need a vision of an economy built from the bottom up, that celebrates small and local businesses, startups and entrepreneurs and relies on the ingenuity and resourcefulness of Maine people.
We live in a terrific place and it is one of our greatest assets. People want to live here, if they can. If we can help them to grow new companies and new jobs, they will strengthen the fabric of the state and allow all of us to rise together.
Maine will succeed in unimaginable ways when we become known as the startup state, and when the Bill Gates and Steve Jobs of tomorrow, in whatever business they’re focused on, will look at the map of America and put their finger on the state of Maine to say, “This is where we should be.”
A PLAN TO GET US THERE
We are awash in 100-point plans without vision, too many of which assume the future will simply be an updated version of the past, rather than an enormously different place filled with both challenges and opportunities and requiring new skills and approaches. We need a bold but simple plan to rally behind.
We need positive leadership, at all levels of government and business, that sees the opportunities before us, focuses on the future rather than the past and has an unrelenting confidence in Maine people.
The state boasts many good organizations working on the economy, from chambers of commerce and the Maine Development Foundation to financing organizations like the Small Business Administration and the Finance Administration of Maine, the Maine Technology Institute and the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development.
What we don’t have is an organization that tells their story and unabashedly advocates for small startups, entrepreneurs, inventors, researchers and existing businesses that are the building blocks of tomorrow’s prosperity.
When the many parts of the next economy find a way to speak with a more unified voice, and to work together more closely, the process of change will accelerate, Maine’s brand will be strengthened, the machinery of government will become more helpful and the people of Maine will rally in support.
Many people are now gathering to make that happen in Maine. I’ll do my best to keep you posted.
Alan Caron is president of Envision Maine, a nonpartisan organization that promotes Maine’s next economy. He is also a partner in the Caron & Egan Consulting Group, which advises companies, governments and nonprofits on strategic planning and communications. He can be reached at [email protected]