Here we are, almost in August, and Maine’s two summer migrations are gaining momentum. One is the first trickle of outward-bound summer guests and tourists, reluctantly moving in a straight line southward. The other appears more like the wild crashing of a fly in a jar, as Mainers frantically try to squeeze as much as possible into what remains of the summer.
Summer is the best reminder of what we love about Maine, with power enough to keep us going through the winter.
I recently read, in this newspaper, yet another lament about Mainers not supporting economic growth and being against everything. It is true that Maine people have opposed a lot of things that might have added jobs. The list is long and stretches everywhere from the Dickey-Lincoln Dam to nuclear power, casinos, road widenings, wind turbines, tar sands and public squares.
That opposition has many times made perfect sense and kept us from chasing the siren song of the greedy and the shortsighted onto the shoals. Other instances of opposition, on the other hand, have been little more than a senseless bad habit.
Some people, particularly those who think the economy trumps everything, tend to lump all of this opposition into this derisive spittle of a word, “NIMBY” (“Not in My Back Yard”). The implication is that everyone who opposes something would be in favor of it if it weren’t so close to their house. That attitude, naturally, does nothing to help us find our way forward as a state.
Here’s one of our most fundamental challenges: Mainers are enormously conflicted about growth. Just about everyone wants the economy to improve and the number of quality jobs to grow, but few of us want change, and in particular the kind of change that feels like it would turn Maine into Boston, New Jersey, Arkansas or Las Vegas.
There’s an uncomplicated reason we don’t leave with the tourists every Labor Day. We like it here. Not the cold winters so much, but the rest of it. We like the simplicity and friendliness of the place. The fact that we’re not all packed into small areas, that we’re all close to water and woods. We also like the way that the tourists support all those quality restaurants, inns and places to visit that we’d have no business having without them, and that we happily take advantage of when they’re gone.
Overall, we like everything about Maine except the economy and some of the politicians. So we’ve been struggling for a long time with this question: “How do we grow without wrecking the place?”
To help answer that question, I traveled to Washington, D.C., eight years ago to meet with the folks at the Brookings Institution, to persuade them to come to Maine and write a major report that would help us imagine a more prosperous future.
At that time, Brookings produced only one state report every five years, so we were competing against 14 other states for their attention, all with some variation of the same idea.
I sat at a large round table prepared to make our case. When it came my turn, I said this: “We’re a small state where people still talk with each other, and try to work together. We have an overabundance of smart and passionate people who love Maine. We have too many people stuck in poverty or living on the edge. And we have millions of people who visit us every year. Taken together, that means that we are motivated, we have the potential to do big things, and when an idea takes hold in Maine, tourists often pollinate it to states across the country.”
Brookings came to Maine. Sponsored by GrowSmart Maine, and with the help and support of people across the state, the think tank produced one of the greatest and most useful plans for Maine’s economy that we’ll ever need. “Charting Maine’s Future” urged us to grow in a way that is consistent with Maine’s heritage and values, that reinforces our powerful brand of wholesomeness and quality, and that allows us to both have the place we love and lift ourselves up, at the same time.
Since then, thousands of Mainers have been hard at work putting those ideas into practice. I see their impact everywhere. This week, I saw it in an ad by the Boothbay Chamber of Commerce promoting the Boothbay region as the “green” and “solar-powered” tourist destination. Look around, and you’ll see it where you are, too. Then, celebrate that we’re beginning to answer the question of how to grow without wrecking the place.
Alan Caron is a partner in the Caron & Egan Consulting Group and president of Envision Maine. He can be contacted at: