I was drawn last week by the headline in a press release from the Knight Foundation referring to a Gallup poll it had commissioned. “Got Love for Your Community? It May Create Economic Growth,” it proclaimed.

“Wow,” I thought, “this is way better than ‘Build it, and they will come.’ ‘Love it, and they will come.’ Huh. This has real promise.”

The assertion, it turns out, derives from the answers the Gallup pollsters got to questions they asked 43,000 people from 26 communities over the period from 2008 through 2010.

Gallup designed questions to measure what it called “emotional connection between people and their community” — aspects such as the number of friends and family members living nearby, number of local groups people belong to, the feeling that one’s voice is heard and considered in matters of local concern, evidence of involvement in local affairs, sense of openness to all kinds of people, abundant opportunities and places to meet and socialize.

“Three community qualities — social offerings, openness and beauty” — Gallup found, “consistently emerged as the leading drivers for community attachment.”

These three factors were more significant in determining people’s attachment to their community than their perceptions of the local economy, more important than their perceptions of local leadership and more important than their perceptions of being safe in the community.

More important still — at least from the perspective of economic development — was the finding that “communities with residents who are more attached to (their) place show stronger growth (of economic output) even in tough economic times.”

In brief, places people love experience greater growth in gross domestic product. “Emotional connection,” Gallup concludes, “does drive economic growth.”

Love it, and it will thrive.

Reading this, I immediately thought of milk and heroin addiction. Observers have noted that a large majority of heroin addicts began drinking milk as young children. Accurate as that observation may be, it does not support the conclusion that drinking milk as a child leads to heroin addiction. Association does not equal causation.

How can Gallup know that emotional connection “drives” economic growth?

Does the emotional attachment people feel for a community cause it to grow economically? Or, does the economic success of a community drive people to develop an attachment to it?

How can we know which is the cause and which the effect? What is really driving what?

Answering this question is particularly important for Maine, where we know our tax and energy and transportation disadvantages and where so much seems to ride on developing and promoting our quality of place.

The answer, I think, requires digging a bit deeper into the nature and effects of emotional attachment to a community.

“Our theory,” said a spokesman for the Knight Foundation, “is that when a community’s residents are highly attached, they will spend more time there, spend more money, they’re more productive and tend to be more entrepreneurial.”

Spend more time and money where there are things to do. OK, that’s seems logical. But I must have the money to spend in the first place. And chances are that if I can’t earn enough money in the community to meet my needs, I won’t stay there forever, no matter what my attachment.

But the next two parts of Knight’s theory are more important. Be “more productive,” be “more entrepreneurial”: now that’s significant.

If being emotionally attached to my community makes me “more productive” and “more entrepreneurial,” then that is news worth touting.

A finding that public and private investments designed to increase social tolerance, social gatherings and beauty do in fact make us more productive and more entrepreneurial is very good news for Maine and points a way for our economic development strategy.

I’m not convinced that the Gallup poll results cited here make the case, but they certainly point to the need for more careful investigation.

Charles Lawton is senior economist for Planning Decisions, a public policy research firm. He can be reached at:

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