In Monica Wood’s memoir, “When We Were the Kennedys,” there is a poignant depiction of Hugh Chisholm’s first visit to the Mexico-Rumford area.

The young entrepreneur, a contemporary of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, a man who would later found the Oxford Paper Co. and begin the modern era of paper production in Maine, took a train from Portland to Rumford and from there a horse-drawn sleigh up to a spot overlooking the falls at a bend in the Androscoggin River.

On a clear wintry night, lit only by the moon and the stars, he gazed past the thundering water for hours, envisioning the dams and sluice channels and grinding rooms and paper machines that would surround and fill the enormous factory he was to build there.

Ultimately, that late-night reverie would lead to integration of the water, forests and people of Maine (and much of neighboring Francophone Canada) with the world’s growing demand for paper, creating an industrial system that generated millions of jobs and enormous wealth for our state over the span of at least three generations.

Now, for at least a generation, the economic outcome of that great industrial insight has been on the decline. Faster-growing trees in other parts of the world, newer machines, cheaper power and the replacement of paper with digital information have combined to reduce a once-sturdy pillar of Maine’s economy to a shadow of its former self. And similar trends have had similar effects on other pillars of our economy.

For 30 years, the steady emergence of a single, global industrial system has brought the world untold millions of new jobs and untold new levels of wealth. Unfortunately for Maine, much of that growth has come at the expense of the earliest entrants into that global system. Maine and most of our nation’s rural areas have suffered the consequences of de-industrialization – loss of jobs, emigration of the young and growing fiscal burdens for those who remain.

So what is to be done? For me (as should be well known to those who have read this column over the years), the search for answers leads back to Hugh Chisholm’s winter’s night huddled under a thick blanket gazing down at the water crashing over a steep drop near Rumford.

Imagine for a moment (if only metaphorically) putting a group of Maine’s most successful business leaders, entrepreneurs and public policy researchers into Hugh Chisholm’s sleigh. Imagine posing to them this three-part challenge:

n First, “list 10 products or services for which global demand is most certainly going to experience enormous growth over the next 20 years.”

n Second, “over that list lay various combinations of Maine’s natural resources, geographic conditions and personal character traits.”

n Third, “pick the top three products, services or combination of activities that have the greatest potential to increase Maine’s overall economic prosperity significantly over the coming generation.”

This imaginary exercise is, in essence, what an organization called FocusMaine has been doing for the past 18 months. And, in the interest of full disclosure, it is an exercise in which I have participated as a volunteer public-policy researcher. It also has been an exercise built on the nonpartisan, evidence-based, big picture-oriented attitude toward public policy and economic development that I have for years attempted to promote in this column.

That said, my purpose here is to explain a bit about the origins and intent of FocusMaine by reference to this iconic story of Maine’s industrial history, and to summarize the conclusions to which it has come thus far.

I’ll leave a discussion of the origins of FocusMaine for a future column and move to the heart of the matter – the answers to the imaginary exercise I posed above. They are, in brief, “food,” “biopharmaceuticals” and “footloose smart people.”

FocusMaine is not all things for all people; it is not intended to solve all of our state’s problems; it is not another report with lots of data and exquisitely logical policy recommendations poised expectantly and vulnerably before some legislative body.

It is, rather, a series of big bets placed by experienced business leaders who are willing to say, “We are prepared to devote 10 years building support among all those willing to join us in three areas of focused activity:

“First, building Maine’s food system – from soil and sea to plates and bowls worldwide – into an engine of economic prosperity; second, building in Maine the enterprises that will manufacture the drugs and medicines that will improve the health and relieve the pain of millions of people across the globe; and third, to build a worldwide reputation for Maine as a welcoming and supportive community for smart people everywhere who seek a beautiful and safe base from which to turn their skills and initiative into the income required to realize their dreams.”

That the people involved in FocusMaine are willing to make these bets and commit themselves to the long-term effort needed to make them pay off is, I believe, reason for optimism about our state’s economic future.

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

[email protected]

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