More than 150 small-business owners, entrepreneurs, dreamers and doers gathered last Saturday on Chebeague Island to talk about Maine’s economic future, brought together by the Island Institute and the many dedicated volunteers who live on the island.
I was asked to help set the tone for the day with a few words on the encouraging changes that are happening in Maine right now, as the foundations of the next economy are being built all across the state. Since most people couldn’t join us that day, I wanted to share some highlights in this column.
Let’s start with Maine’s assets.
First, we’re a can-do place. You can hardly present a problem anywhere in the state without people asking, “What are we going to do about it?” I suppose that’s why small businesses and startups spring up in Maine like May dandelions, or why we have nearly 500 towns, many of which would be on life support if they didn’t have determined and generous volunteers who keep them going. It’s also why we reportedly have 6,500 nonprofits in the state, or one for every 200 residents. It turns out that Mainers were seasoned multitaskers long before the phrase was invented.
Secondly, we love Maine. Whether you grew up here or imported yourself, you’re in Maine on purpose. And most of us love both the beauty of the place and the hardworking, resourceful, quirky and humor-filled people here.
Finally, we’ve got one heck of a brand.
So what are we going to do about it?
It turns out that it’s nearly impossible to understand Maine’s future without better understanding our past. The people of Maine are, in many ways, the descendants of the people who first came here to carve out their future in a tough and cold environment. They were the people who shipped out granite that would build the country’s great monuments. They fed the young country with cod. And they built the greatest sailing ships the world had ever seen.
These people were immensely courageous pioneers, determined to succeed against all odds. They didn’t think of themselves as being in a small place beset with problems, or consume themselves with hand-wringing and complaints. That’s because they possessed an essential quality that has been in short supply here for a while. They believed in themselves, in each other and in the future.
Two hundred years ago, everyone in Maine was, by necessity, an entrepreneur, an innovator or a small-business person, running farms, cutting and shipping wood, catching fish, and operating sawmills, shipyards and hundreds of other small businesses serving not only their communities, but also the rest of the country.
Today, we’re finally recovering from depending on manufacturing jobs and mills along our rivers. We’ve gone through a long series of stages of grief and denial, anger and recrimination. We’ve tried to bring the past back and waited for a new wave of big companies to come and rescue us. Now we’ve begun to dust ourselves off and get to work on the future, and a long-overdue economic renewal is underway in Maine.
Over the past decade or so, we’ve begun talking about building a new prosperity on a more solid foundation of small businesses, innovators and entrepreneurs. Innovation and entrepreneurship aren’t exactly new ideas here in Maine. They’re what we’ve been doing since the beginning, and they’re in our blood and our DNA. The idea of building a more innovative and entrepreneurial economy through hard work and taking risks is simply a matter of remembering who we are and how we’ve always bootstrapped our way forward.
Maine people have stopped waiting for government or Wall Street to save us. They’ve stopped waiting for yesterday’s jobs to return. Instead, they’re taking matters into their own hands to build a future that celebrates both the beauty of Maine and the spirit of Maine’s people. And they’re doing it with the same hopefulness and confidence that brought people here in the first place.
On Chebeague last Saturday, another granite block was added to the foundation of that next economy. That conversation will continue Sept. 26 in Freeport at the Summit on Maine’s Next Economy, which is being organized by Envision Maine and a wide array of other organizations and sponsors.
If you’re reading this, circle the date. Lots of people just like you are gathering together to explore the future and to answer the question that Mainers everywhere have been asking for a long time: “What are we going to do about it?”
Alan Caron is a partner in the Caron & Egan Consulting Group and president of Envision Maine. He can be contacted at: