This story is part of a series of profiles on Maine organizations that attempt to influence the Legislature, the governor and the media through their research and advocacy.

Alan Caron made a name for himself as a grassroots organizer when he blocked the widening of the Maine Turnpike in the early 1990s, but even he was surprised how quickly his latest advocacy project – the Brookings Institution report on Maine’s future – has captured people’s imagination.

Part of it is the nationally known Brookings name, which still gets top billing in stories about the report that recommends what Maine should do to grow its economy, increase incomes, lower taxes and protect the state’s natural beauty.

It also helped that the report got a lot of prominent press coverage when it came out a month before last year’s general election and that Gov. John Baldacci and Democratic leadership have embraced it, going so far as to create commissions around its implementation.

But, it is Caron, founder of GrowSmart Maine, who raised money for the project and is trying to keep momentum going on the ground, where he tells groups, “Don’t wait for change to come out of Augusta.”

While GrowSmart is always mentioned with the Brookings Institution report, the connection is not immediately obvious. GrowSmart Maine was a self-described anti-sprawl group based in Yarmouth that Caron founded in 2002 to work on land-use issues.

It quickly became obvious, Caron said, that land use couldn’t be addressed without looking at the overall Maine economy and implementing a “cut to invest” strategy, so he changed the group’s focus.

“It’s a non-partisan, big-tent organization that’s concerned with the future and focused on building common ground,” he said.

But not everyone is convinced.

People involved in the tourism industry are incensed the Brookings report is calling for a hike in the lodging tax, from 7 to 10 percent, to help pay for floating a $190 million “Maine Quality Places” bond to revitalize older, downtown centers and capitalize the Land for Maine’s Future land conservation program. Others question whether the report’s proposed $60 to $100 million in state government cuts to fund a $200 million economic development bond will ever happen, or whether the state will just borrow the money and pay it back like any other bond.

Joe Bruno, the former House minority leader and now chairman of the state Republican Party, says it is a report paid for by Democrats that is being used to justify raising taxes and floating bonds.

“This gives them something to hang their hat on when they want to raise the meals and lodging tax and issue $400 million in new bonds,” Bruno said. “What about the other 50 reports that have been written and researched in the past that say we must cut taxes to be competitive?”

Behind the report

Caron said no one group or party paid for the report, and he raised the money “the old fashioned way” by calling people and asking them to donate.

The list of donors includes the Maine Community Foundation, 25 businesses including L.L. Bean, Bath Iron Works and Jackson Labs, and individuals like former Gov. Angus King. The largest single contribution was $100,000 from someone who wished to remain anonymous.

Caron said he negotiated a price of $500,000 with the Brookings Institution, a Washington D.C.-based think-tank, to do the report and spent another $500,000 on the production and background work, holding 45 listening sessions around the state, where Brookings staff got feedback on the biggest issues facing Maine.

Brookings also read studies done on Maine and researchers were paid to delve into subject areas that became the backbone of the report. Those researchers were largely local and included Charlie Colgan of the University of Southern Maine; Laurie Lachance, of the Maine Development Foundation; Michael Moore of the recently formed Maine Public Spending Research Group; Phil Trostel of the University of Maine at Orono; and Bob Thompson of the Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments.

Caron said he knows people want to politicize the report, but he’s trying to build broad-based support.

“Can Democrats agree to cut and Republicans agree to invest?” asked Caron, who said that will be key to changing the status quo in Maine, where taxes are among the highest in the nation and incomes are low.

Future plans

Caron said the Brookings Institution report is just the first phase of a plan for change that will have to be accepted across the state in order to work. He said his group is not wed to all the numbers in the report, including the size of the bonds that need to be floated.

“You’re not going to see us weigh in on a lot of details,” he said. “It’s more about the direction for change.”

Caron and members of the Brookings staff are going to be hitting the road later this month to start a series of public meetings held in each of the state’s 35 senate districts.

GrowSmart, based in Falmouth, is in the process of hiring temporary field workers for that effort, and Caron was given approval from his board for a budget of just over $1 million in 2007.

The nonprofit organization has essentially doubled every year since Caron started it in 2002 with a voluntary staff of two – including himself. This year he will earn a salary of $80,000 and the group will employ 11 people. He said the fundraising has become easier now that the Brookings report is out, but the work has just begun – a long haul that those who know Caron say he’s up to.

Dana Connors, now head of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, squared off against Caron in early 1990s over the turnpike widening when Connors was commissioner of the state Department of Transportation.

“I have known Alan on both sides of issues and I have tremendous respect for him and his ability to organize campaigns; to do precisely what he’s doing with the Brookings report,” Connors said.

“He did that very effectively with the turnpike back in the early 1990s. We lost not because we had the wrong message. We lost because he had a more effective campaign,” Connors said. “He puts together an effort and he stays the course.”

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