Genanne Walsh, who moved to Maine from California in 2020, walks her dog, Maggie, at Evergreen Cemetery in Portland on Nov. 10. Maine is experiencing an unexpected pandemic-fueled population boom, with new arrivals filling the growing gap between deaths and births, and then some. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Trisha Bauman moved to Portland from Manhattan in the summer of 2020, the early days of the pandemic, when streets were empty and most professional and social interactions happened on computer screens.

Bauman graduated from Bowdoin College in Brunswick and owned a home in Portland that she rented out intermittently, but she’d never lived here full time. Her decision was prompted by the prospect of many months of empty offices and working from home. Maine seemed an ideal place for that. As post-pandemic life has set in, Bauman – who has lived all over the world – said she increasingly feels like the move might be permanent.

“What comes through my computer hasn’t changed,” said Bauman, who founded a sustainability strategy and communications firm a little more than a decade ago and is an adjunct faculty member at Columbia University and Minneapolis College of Art and Design. “But in terms of pace on the street, there is definitely a different experience. It’s incomparably different.”

Maine is experiencing an unexpected pandemic-fueled population boom, with new arrivals filling the growing gap between deaths and births, and then some. In the past decade, Maine’s population has increased by 56,148, according to U.S. census estimates, even as the number of deaths has outnumbered births by 27,820. That means the state actually has attracted about 84,000 new residents since 2013 – significantly more than the population of its biggest city – with three-quarters of them coming in the last four years.

Maine’s population growth since 2019 has been twice the national rate and ranks narrowly behind Vermont for the biggest increase in New England. Historically, Maine’s growth lagged behind the national rate, and any growth was driven more by births than by people moving here from away.

The arrivals are bringing down Maine’s highest-in-the nation median age, among other subtle shifts. And they bring both potential and challenges to a state that has struggled with a lack of workers and a shortage of housing. On the positive side, the state’s diversity is slowly increasing, and the population increase will help combat the “brain drain” phenomenon. But many communities might not be ready, or willing, to welcome an influx.


The vast majority of new residents come from other states, what’s known as in-migration. International migrants, including asylum seekers, make up less than 10% of the recent increase in Maine.

Interviews with people who have moved here, as well as economists and other experts, suggest many who came are like Bauman. They used the pandemic’s societal shifts – specifically, the option of working from anywhere – to relocate away from populated cities and to places seen as quiet, safe and recreationally abundant.

For Diane Rowland, it was more of a homecoming.

Diane Rowland, dean of the College of Natural Sciences at the University of Maine Courtesy of University of Maine

When she was younger, her father worked for the U.S. Forest Service, and his work led the family to Maine. She graduated from high school in Orono but left the state for college and a career as a crop physiologist in Texas, Florida, Georgia and New Mexico. Her parents and sister stayed, though, and she still visited.

In 2020, her parents died within six months of each other, and when Rowland returned to help clean out their house, she felt a pull back to the state. Three months later, the University of Maine was hiring a dean for its College of Natural Sciences, and Rowland took the job.

“It felt like someone was trying to tell me something,” she said.


Rowland, 57, said the state feels different now than it did in her childhood.

“Maine still cherishes its heritage and traditions, but I think I see more embrace of change,” she said. “It’s a little slow, but you would expect that.”

As the pandemic effect continues, another factor – displacement from climate change – also could be influencing Maine’s surge and could supplant the pandemic as a driver of in-migration in years to come.

Although the phenomenon of climate migration within the United States has yet to be studied extensively, Maine is thought to be an attractive refuge for residents of areas dealing with wildfires, drought, extreme heat and hurricanes, said Vanessa Levesque, a researcher and professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy at the University of Southern Maine.

Vanessa Levesque, a University of Southern Maine researcher and assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy, says displacement from climate change could be a driver of Maine’s population increases, now and in the future. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“I don’t think it’s going to be a huge influx of people all at once, but more of a slow increase over time that gives communities time to plan for this if they really want it,” she said.

In September, she gave a talk at UMaine’s Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions which she titled “Vacationland or Climate Migrationland.”


“It’s not all positive or all negative; it’s likely to have a mixed impact,” she said. “And it’s really important that’s how we think and talk about it and that people recognize those dualities.

“In Maine, I don’t think most local places are thinking about this very much yet.”

But they may start soon.


Genanne Walsh moved to Maine from California with her dog, Maggie. One of the things Walsh enjoys about her new home is walking Maggie at Evergreen Cemetery in Portland. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Genanne Walsh moved to San Francisco after college and lived there for 30 years. But by the time the pandemic hit in early 2020, she and her wife were weary of California and its regular wildfires. They left San Francisco to drive to Maine for the first time right around Orange Skies Day, when smoke from a nearby wildfire had colored the air all around them and deposited ash on their stoop.

“Everything felt so dreary, and when we got here and started taking walks on the beach with our dog, we started thinking about what it might be like to be here all the time,” Walsh said.


They drove back to California after a month but started searching for real estate in Maine. By the following year, they had found a condo in North Deering.

“I had never been to New England before,” said Walsh, a fiction writer. “It was a huge leap in every single way.”

Walsh considers herself a climate migrant but acknowledges that she and her spouse were privileged to be able to afford to move and find a place they could live.

Maine’s population increase comes at a critical time. The state has consistently been among the oldest and whitest states in the country. For decades, leaders have bemoaned the idea of “brain drain” – young people leaving the state in search of greater professional opportunities.

Maine’s median age of 44.7 years remains the highest in the country, but this was also the only state where the median age declined from 2020 to 2021, from 44.8 years. That means just enough younger people moved in to lower the middle line.

Chris Wolfel, 33, and his wife had just had their first child when the pandemic closed every viable day care near their home in Boston. That got them thinking seriously about moving to Maine.


“We had been looking at perhaps moving anyway, but the pandemic accelerated that,” he said.

Wolfel’s wife grew up in central Maine (he’s from Connecticut), and they met in college at Northeastern University. After they graduated, they stayed in the city. She worked in finance, he as an entrepreneur. That’s where the opportunities were.

But that has changed.

“I assumed I would have to spend more time going back and forth to Boston, but I’ve learned that there are a lot of folks that moved up here that are like us – in the same life stage and with the same goals,” Wolfel said.

He knows many people whose online bio information says they live in Boston but who are actually in Portland.

Wolfel now works as associated vice president of entrepreneurship and venture creation for Northeastern’s Roux Institute, which launched in Portland in 2020.


He said he understands up to a point the fears Mainers might have about a steady increase in population, but he sees it differently:

“We need population growth for the state to survive. I think it’s just a matter of, how do we grow this state while protecting why we love living here?”


Part of Amanda Rector’s job as state economist is to make regular population projections. Her report this year estimated that Maine’s population would grow to 1,374,728 by 2025, using the 2020 census as the starting point. But with three years to go, we’re already more than 10,000 ahead of that pace.

The same report estimated that the state’s population would be 1,397,663 by 2030. The state needs to gain only 12,324 to top that, less than the most recent year-over-year increase, although it will take more than that number of newcomers because of the growing gap between deaths and births.

For decades in Maine, as in other states, births outnumbered deaths, often by thousands a year. In fact, going back to 1900, deaths had never outpaced births in Maine until 2011. Since then, they have done so every year, and for a decade, Maine’s population all but stalled. From 2010 to 2020, Maine grew by just 2.6%, far less than the national population growth rate of 7.4%.


Then came the pandemic.

In just three years, Maine gained more than 55,000 new residents.

Predictably, the biggest population increases have come in Maine’s most populous and most southern counties, Cumberland and York. Of the increase in the last decade, 70% has been in those two counties.

Twin sisters Judy and Ellen Dennis, 67, are among many who fled New York during the pandemic and arrived in Maine. The state wasn’t foreign to them. Their grandfather was from Bangor, and they went to summer camp for many years on Long Lake in Naples and Bridgton.

So as the country was gripped by COVID-19, they decided to head north. It was just supposed to be temporary, but they stayed.

Both are active in the arts community – Judy is a theater director and teacher, Ellen a theater producer and adjunct faculty member at Columbia University – and they wondered if Portland would be enough for them.


“With this influx of people coming in, it seems like more are excited about world-class performances here,” Judy Dennis said.

“The population has become much more diverse, so that’s been positive,” Ellen added. “But I definitely assumed it would be less expensive.”

Both appreciate the proximity to New York, but they no longer feel like they need the big city full time.

“I have no interest in going back,” Ellen Dennis said. “I want to bring everyone I love here to Maine.”


Rector said it’s too early to know if the pandemic surge is a blip for Maine or something that will continue, but it’s welcomed. Population growth and economic growth are directly linked.


“Along with that increase in younger population, we’re also seeing a more diverse population,” she said. “We’re still the least diverse state but have seen a lot of improvements in recent years … and I think that brings a lot more innovation and dynamism and interesting cultural shifts that are more positive for the economy and culture of the state.”

Maine’s Black population has increased 62% in the past decade but still represents just 1.6% of residents. The number of people who identify as two or more races has increased more, from 27,834 in 2013 to 72,552 last year.

Josiah Garcia, 33, moved to Maine from California in July and lives in Fayette, near Augusta. He has a better-paying job here. Maine is experiencing a modest but expectation-exceeding population boom that started before the pandemic and has accelerated in the years since. The trend is even more noteworthy considering that the state also has seen far more deaths than births during that time. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Josiah Garcia had lived in California all his life and had been working in a school there for more than a decade as a special education paraprofessional, but he wasn’t sure his home state fit anymore.

His parents had come to Maine in early 2022 and family was important to him, so he took a leap and joined them that summer.

Garcia’s parents relocated to Kentucky after a year, (the winter was too much) but he stayed. He’s been living with his great-aunt in Fayette, outside of Augusta, where he works at a pediatric occupational therapy clinic. He started as a patient service representative but was promoted to team leader within eight months. He’s connected with other young professionals through the organization Live + Work in Maine.

“People I talk to in California say, ‘Are you ever going back home?’ And I say, ‘No, I already am home,’ ” Garcia said.


Garcia, 33, is Hispanic (grandparents on both sides immigrated from Mexico) but said Maine’s lack of diversity hasn’t bothered him.

“It feels more open and welcoming than when I first came to Maine in 2008, after I graduated high school,” he said.

Daisy Dominguez Singh is the dean of Folger Library at the University of Maine Courtesy of University of Maine

Despite recent demographic shifts, a certain amount of nativism also still exists in Maine. Anyone who wasn’t born here has probably felt it, even if only in a good-natured “oh, you’re from away” remark. Will people moving from other parts of the country and world feel accepted and be able to live in harmony with people who trace their state heritage back generations?

Daisy Dominguez Singh had never been to Maine before she interviewed to be the dean of libraries at UMaine’s Fogler Library in Orono and Merrill Library in Machias. Her family is from Ecuador, but she spent most of her life in New York City.

The pandemic, she said, spurred an unprecedented cultural shift for her and many around her.

“Almost everyone has reevaluated things from a work-life balance perspective,” she said. “Trauma made people reassess what they are willing to do and sacrifice work-wise.”


Singh, 48, felt a desire to be somewhere calmer and closer to nature. She had recently married and felt fortunate that her husband wanted the same.

“I’ve never been around this many white people,” she said. “I can sometimes pass as white – but when you hear me speak, you know something is up.”

In the year she’s been in Maine, Singh said, she’s gotten used to its lack of diversity. It doesn’t bother her the way she worried it might, although she’d love to see more.

“I hope it’s a permanent move,” she said.


Still, in a mostly rural, sparsely populated state, even small shifts can have a large impact. That means both opportunities and challenges, and Maine might not be ready to handle some of the latter.


Housing remains the biggest barrier for people looking to relocate here, especially in Greater Portland. An October report by MaineHousing, the state’s housing authority, found that the state needs to build more than 80,000 new homes in the next seven years to accommodate both existing residents and people moving in. If in-migration continues to exceed expectations, that estimate could be low.

Meanwhile, any workforce gains from in-migration are being wiped out by people retiring. In 2013, 235,984 Maine residents – 17.8% – were 65 and older. In 2022, it was 312,893, or 22.6%. That’s an increase of nearly 77,000 recent or soon-to-be retirees.

Tim Waring is an associate professor in the University of Maine’s School of Economics. He said it’s no secret Maine needs more people to move in to offset its existing aging population and low birth rate. The challenges, he said – a shortage of housing, transportation and other services, as well as a fear of change – are all short term, but that can be hard for communities to see.

“The first thought is often reactionary: ‘We don’t want new people,’ ” he said. “The challenge is to get people to realize that an influx is a necessary solution to the brain drain problem. And in the long term the research is clear that cultural diversity makes communities more productive and innovative.”

Maine could do more to incentivize people to move here, Waring said, whether through loan forgiveness or building infrastructure and housing proactively. He sees marketing Maine as a destination for climate migrants as an intriguing idea.

If Maine doesn’t properly prepare for the expected continued increase in new residents, however, he thinks the ramifications could be dire.


“We’ll continue to age and continue to have tight labor conditions,” Waring said. “Young people typically want to move where other young people are.”

Scott Marzilli, UMaine’s associate provost for student success, moved to Maine from Texas with his family back in January. He hadn’t spent any time in the Northeast before.

Scott Marzilli with his wife, Colleen, and three of their children, Maddi, Milli and Carter, on Chick Hill near Bangor last month. Photo courtesy of Scott Marzilli

Marzilli, 53, and his wife, Colleen, a professor, have four children, one in college and three in elementary school.

The job opportunity was the motivating factor, he said, but if Maine didn’t feel welcoming or family friendly, Marzilli and his wife would have looked elsewhere.

“The quality of life here is remarkable,” he said. “Even something as simple as letting our younger kids walk down to the store and not worrying about them.”

Not that there haven’t been challenges. Child care was a major barrier in the first year, and that’s something he heard from many coworkers, too. The Marzillis also had trouble finding workers to do projects on the fixer-upper house they bought.


“We couldn’t get a plumber for a month and a half,” he said.

Climate wasn’t a motivating factor, Marzilli said, but he’s thought a lot about it since the move.

“In Texas, there were stretches of 100-degree heat for 30 days in a row. The kids never wanted to go outside during the summer,” he said. “Here, it’s sort of the other way around.”

While the family wasn’t used to winter, they’re getting out and enjoying it.

“We were told there are two ways to get through a Maine winter: Either hunker down by a stove and pray for spring, or embrace winter activities.”

They have opted for the latter.

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