You may have heard the phrase “geography is destiny” before. It’s occasionally used in geopolitical discussions, and sometimes archaeologists and anthropologists use it in conjunction with analyses of past civilizations and historical human progress. In its most basic form, the concept implies that a region or country’s geography is paramount in providing resource or proximity advantages and disadvantages, and to a great extent can dictate political or economic success.

Within our own region here in Southern Maine, thinking in these terms can be instructive and thought-provoking. What are the “geographic” strengths of the Biddedord and Saco region? Certainly in the past and even today, the Saco River is the first geographic feature that comes to mind, useful for centuries in powering industry and providing inexpensive transport for goods. Electric power is still generated via the waterfalls, and the river has additionally become a site for leisure and enjoyment activities. Likewise, the Atlantic Ocean is a major advantage for our area, with coastal amenities, tourist attractions, beautiful beaches, and relatively easy marine navigation up and down the coast.

The geography of our area is doubly blessed by being within an easy drive of our largest city in the state of Portland, as well as major metro areas to the south including Portsmouth and Boston, via nearby highways and rail service. Speaking of highways, while Route 95 is man-made of course and not a naturally occurring geographic feature, nonetheless being adjacent to the major eastern seaboard automobile and trucking route is yet another geographic advantage for our local metro area. Finally, it might be a stretch to think of our vast downtown mill space as a geographic amenity, but it is a significant part of our landscape when we think about go-forward development priorities. We also have excellent educational institutions at the secondary and collegiate level that empower and motivate our most important asset, our people.

So it’s clear that at least from a Maine perspective, the Biddeford and Saco region has a lot going for it, perhaps as much or more than any other region in the state. In a recent economic development session that a number of local leaders and community members participated in, it was compelling to think about the multiple geography-influenced opportunities that are both currently being pursued and still readily available to us to further grow our area and make it an even more attractive destination for residents to live, work and play.

For example, a lot of our recent regional success and momentum has come from developers leveraging the available mill space along the river, and entrepreneurs taking advantage of these desirable facilities to grow their businesses and create jobs. Similarly, proximity to Route 95 has enabled a lot of consumer-driven businesses, organizations, and retailers to grow at or near the exits, most notably in the Biddeford Crossing area. This momentum will continue as new mixed-use projects open in the next year or two, by the river and along the highway corridor. Perhaps the most exciting transformation soon to come to fruition will be the RiverWalk, which could potentially become a very popular regional destination for tourists and residents alike, indirectly powering even more commercial expansion and enhanced social and environmental benefits via “walkability” locally.

In thinking about smart growth and future development to come, entrepreneurs and municipal leaders will no doubt consider some of these options. Are there ways to make our riverfronts and oceanfront even more of a destination? Are there ways to enhance our effective utilization of our exits off Route 95? Are there ways to supplement residential growth with efforts and incentives to grow or recruit cutting-edge companies to balance our future tax base and add more good paying jobs for our residents? Are there ways to improve traffic flow, pedestrian access and utilization of our downtown areas? What great new businesses can open up or expand locally to add to the fabric of the rich tapestry of industries and options we already have here?

But it’s also important to realize that just because we have these geographic benefits, it doesn’t guarantee success. The premise of “destiny” might only be a done deal in hindsight. It takes proactive insight, significant effort, and perseverance to make any business grow and prosper, especially in these times. And at a regional level, even with geographic strengths, decisions can be made that hinder opportunities; the old MERC trash incinerator site is an example of that, a good tax-paying business but resulting in a negative indirect externality and disincentive for adjacent development. Advantages can be sub-optimally utilized or even squandered without sound plans and wise actions.

So we are fortunate to have assets that can form the basis for future growth, regional success, and quality of life. But it takes all of us actively working together — both working hard and working smart — to turn potential into reality.

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