February 17, 2013

Maine Voices: Maine must identify, build on strengths

Instead of fighting the dead-last Forbes ranking, let's analyze what we have going for us and how it fits in with global trends.


WESTPORT ISLAND - How many stories, columns and editorials over how many weeks would we get if the Patriots or Red Sox were in last place for three years in a row?

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A visitor from Florida takes a picture of Portland Head Light in Cape Elizabeth. Natural beauty is part of what the state stands for, a reader says.

2010 File Photo/Gregory Rec

Wouldn't the media and all of us be telling Robert Kraft and John Henry what to do and where to go?

Being proclaimed last in the union for business climate by Forbes Magazine is very serious for Maine. Yet it caused only some hand-wringing and a little finger-pointing -- essentially, acceptance. Why is that?

There's debate about the measurements Forbes uses, but let's put that aside and agree that the criteria that it employs are appropriate. Let's also acknowledge:

By and large, people, companies, banks and other powerful interests "from away" pretty much control our economy and our options.

We've always been at the end of some road, making things like oil, gas and electricity expensive.

Only a few corporations are willing to be based here, away from their colleagues, markets and the urban economic action.

Many of our young leave Maine to find their careers and lives elsewhere.

We Mainers are older than the citizens of all other U.S. states.

These truths are self-evident.

I'm worried this time. We've been able to keep it together over centuries by benefiting from a succession of natural resource commodity booms. We were fishermen for huge catches of cod and haddock; boatbuilders for international trade; saw millers; textile manufacturers; pulp-and-paper producers.

Now the bounty of our natural resource booms has come and largely gone, and unless somebody sees something I haven't seen, real-ly it's the lobsters and expanse of abundant, lovely, consoling land and wildlife that remain.

Furthermore, government reform can provide only small gains because while Forbes has us at the bottom, our public policy is not out of the mainstream of America -- and surely not at the bottom. It's true that our energy costs are high. But that's a New England cross to bear (and much of the rest of New England is faring OK, according to Forbes). And while we're generous to those in need, we're no more generous than many other states and communities.

And then there's education -- the key to remaining relevant and competitive as individuals, companies, communities, regions and states. While the Maine Community College System has accomplished a dynamic transformation over the past 20 years, the same cannot be said for the University of Maine System, where our debates are not about transformation; they're mostly about the next tuition hike or bond issue to build or rehabilitate buildings.

I'm also nervous about the cost structure of Maine's premier undergraduate colleges and wonder if there isn't a new and more powerful Maine higher education dynamic that we could be creating.

So, we have no more natural resource "gold mines" -- no shale gas treasure equivalent. Government reform can take us only a short way. Higher education and its links to technology sectors and innovation remain weak despite progress on some fronts.

In short, we are far away from the dynamism that has transformed many U.S. regions and states in the last 50 to 75 years and from an intentional process of creative, fresh thinking.

We need to ask ourselves what we're best at and how that relates to the huge economic, demographic, global and climate-related transformations that are sweeping the nation and world. What's "in" and what's "out" within the economic culture that surrounds us? What are the trend lines that we must be aware of? How do we position, strengthen and sustain what we have to take advantage of what's "in" and to strengthen ourselves to meet those trends?

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