Economic development is the process of connecting the dots. I was fortunate to be present at a forum last week, presented by the Gray-New Gloucester Development Corp., where many of the dots were assembled, each bemoaning the absence of the other. The sponsors bemoaned their troubling combination of traffic-clogged streets and empty storefronts. How can we get property owners to invest in their properties? John Butera of the governor’s office bemoaned the state’s fiscal crisis. How can we grow when education and health care take 80 percent of the budget? I bemoaned the state’s demographic crisis. How can we grow, I moaned, when – over the next two decades – we face a 72 percent increase in the elderly population (65+) combined with a 4 percent decrease in the working age population (21 to 64)?

Right next to me sat Kirk Hill and John Moore – two young Mainers recently returned from higher education and career starts in the Boston area – eager to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams back home in Maine. How can we grow, they moaned, when it’s so hard to find an affordable place to live and the skilled workers we need to expand production? And right next to them sat Eric Klein, principal of the Gray-New Gloucester High School. How can I give my students any idea of the career choices available to them without examples of successful businesses willing to provide job shadowing, internships and tours of their facilities?

Each of us was clear about the particular obstacle we saw as impeding our state’s development prospects. Yet together, we embodied the answers we all sought – eager entrepreneurs seeking a less hectic living environment to build their families as well as their businesses, earnest educators trying to find ways to link their students to an increasingly unfamiliar and complicated labor market, government officials trying to restructure long-standing and often obsolete tax and regulatory policies, and local citizen planners trying to put the whole package together in a specific location.

As we heard each other speak, some answers seemed to emerge. Instead of the steady diet of 5-acre subdivisions sprawled across miles of formerly rural landscape that we have spent the last several decades building, we would do well to offer a denser pattern of residential offerings clustered around young-family-friendly village centers with parks, hiking and bike paths, a varied collection of attractive retail shops, restaurants and coffee shops and a scattering of office/industrial spaces ready to serve as testing grounds for a variety of entrepreneurial experiments.

Is this vision of a livable 21st-century entrepreneurial center Utopian? As the solution to every 19th-century village’s traffic and empty storefront problem, of course it’s Utopian. But as the picture of village centers that could evolve in two or three places around the Greater Portland and Greater Bangor and Midcoast regions in Maine, not at all. We see examples in the old mill spaces in Biddeford, in the high-speed Internet infrastructure in Rockland and in the entertainment-oriented riverfront section of Bangor.

No, economic development is not rocket science, but it is complicated. It’s orchestral – it takes a collection of talented people, each exercising his craft in close collaboration with others of vastly different skills exercising their crafts equally well and all operating under the watchful and helpful eye of a far-sighted conductor. That’s the model for the local economic development leader of the 21st century – the conductor of all the musicians in the community. Does every town make beautiful music together? No, certainly not now. But those who do will certainly become the centers of whatever prosperity Maine achieves over the next two decades.

Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions Inc. He can be reached at:

[email protected]