BARRY LOHNES

BARRY LOHNES

We must find a solution to the declining population and subsequent falling revenues in Maine; the two maladies result in deleterious effects on public confidence.

The acuteness of the issue is demonstrated by the Band-Aid practice of public school administrators sojourning to the Far East in order to entice foreign tuition students to study in Maine. With altruistic fervor, administrators aim to keep schools open for the children, and in the process maintain jobs for skilled educators.

No educated person can deny that the future of society scaffolds on education — some may feel the same ends may be achieved with more modest monetary means — nonetheless, nearly all are advocates of public education.

Not to oversimplify, but solving the vexing economic/societal/educational issues of upper Maine may be on the horizon. We must take the opportunity to build an international highway through Maine, connecting eastern Canadian provinces by a highway through Maine.

Historically, Maine exemplifies the scenic stepchild of Massachusetts — a remote corner of the Great Republic — and well off the beaten path of commerce.

Short-changed geographically, and a victim of political boundary drawing, Maine has witnessed economic insularity since colonial times, with the passing exception of a long ago boom in wooden shipbuilding.

Those young adults who stay within our borders after schooling often lack the skills to secure full-time, all-season employment that provides for a dignified standard of living.

No governor can jump-start an anemic economy without clinging resolutely to the coattails of an emerging healthy national economy. Indeed, we Mainers tend to suffer less during austere times, essentially because we have less to lose, or a shorter distance to fall.

Alas, the Yankee work ethic, once praised throughout our nation, is left unchallenged by the broken promise of upward mobility. The bootstrap theory works only when opportunity beckons.

Instead, Maine citizens living in the hinterlands languish in jobs without financial mobility; the steep decline begins 10 to 20 miles from our rock- bound coast and stretches to the wideflowing St. John River and forested bluffs of Aroostook County.

Unless action is taken, in the present century coastal Maine will be called on to financially support the citizenry of upper Maine, where the residents endure declining jobs and the consequent ebbing of our youthful populace.

Public schools will close, pulling down municipal libraries as well as social and cultural centers. Sadly, it will represent a curve of unyielding, diminished returns.

But hope springs eternal. What is a geographical curse may turn out to be a bountiful blessing, if we embrace a vision to assist our fellow citizens in upper Maine, which includes all of Maine beyond the slender strip of coastline.

Our state protrudes into Canada in a blunt, sledgehammer salient, forcing a clumsy separation between the Canadian provinces of Quebec and Maritime Canada. True, we have ameliorated the handicap for Canada by permitting a railroad — the ancient Grand Trunk — to cross our state, and we have granted variances to route fuel to Canada through a north-south pipeline.

The solution: We need to increase business and industrial prosperity by constructing an east-west International highway. This path to prosperity is frequently jaw-boned but not acted upon.

Not only would we link Maine to Quebec and the Maritime provinces ( New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia), but the east-west international highway would serve as a conduit between Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.

Canadians would save up to 600 miles in transit, resulting in energy and person-power time savings; and with taxation in the form of fair tolls, in this century we could largely pay for its construction.

Our now stressed upper Maine economy would be boosted by travel dollars and tourist spending. Our Yankee work ethic could be utilized by gainful employment for construction workers of all sorts — not only laborers but trained technicians and engineers.

Rest stop and hospitality businesses would blossom along the east-west corridor, providing employment to hundreds, if not thousands.

Tax dollars would allow for infrastructure construction, invigorating career and technical schools on either side of the corridor. The drain of our young would cease with the rise of employment opportunity. Technical education would become a means for steady, well- paid and yearround employment.

A long-term issue, largely camouflaged, is the lack of tourists enjoying our woods and streams. For the past seven years, this writer has filled summers with canoe trips on Maine’s major and minor waterways. Clean rivers represent avenues of verdant beauty that revel in Native American and colonial history.

In each lengthy trip, my fellow canoeist and I virtually owned the waterways; in our minds it harkened to the isolation of the colonial era — even on the brightest days we observed few, if any outdoors people enjoying the sweeping waters of “Vacationland.”

Homes and even town offices and fairgrounds bordering the waterways appeared shabby and peeling, indicative of hopes long broken. But, paddling through friendly whitewater while poring over maps, we realized that most of the rivers are not accessible for small craft launching, and what is more, during the days of polluted waterways, few highways were designed to accommodate outdoor recreationists.

With a cross-state international highway, linking Montreal and Quebec City with Saint John and Fredericton, our rivers and forests would be available for increased tourism, including winter skiers and snowmobilers.

Well-managed tourism is a clean, green industry, as residents of coastal Maine attest. And, if New Hampshire and Vermont join the cross-state endeavor, travel from New York and Pennsylvania to Maine and the Maritimes would be eased considerably.

And global education for Maine youth? Internationalism would flourish with a cross-state highway, and we can prepare for it by looking northward, eastward and westward — three directions for economic expansion.

Our educational facilities can prepare for a bustling northern economy — teaching Canadian French in elementary schools and offering student exchanges, along with the creation of basic public school courses in Canadian culture and history, would serve to enhance an understanding and appreciation of our neighbor to the north.

The highway would benefit both sides of the boundary; fashionable commercial centers like Quebec City, Montreal, and Fredericton are within weekend range for vacationers, offering culture, education and entrepreneurial opportunity.

Indeed, the international highway would serve as an economic magnet for Maine. Our future as a prosperous American state with a return of economic self-sufficiency is linked inexorably to improved access between the provinces of eastern Canada and our neighboring northern New England states.

We must act while our brethren north of our coast are still able to offer a vibrant work force.

Barry Lohnes is director of Maine Region 10 Technical High School in Brunswick.

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