PRESQUE ISLE, Maine – The head of GrowSmart Maine appeared at UMPI Jan. 25 to discuss the findings of a report – “Charting Maine’s Future” – put out by the Brookings Institute that took a close look at the future of the state’s economy – what works and what needs to be updated or changed to ensure continued prosperity for those who call Maine home.
“The chancellors listened to GrowSmart’s presentation in Portland on Jan. 24. This is a classic example of the university’s role to be involved with economic issues,” said UMPI President Donald Zillman. “I urge that this just be the beginning of dialog.”
Zillman expressed interest in following up on the discussion through additional group meetings.
Next, Mike Eisensmith, marketing and development coordinator for NMDC, who sponsored the public gathering, introduced Alan Caron, president, CEO and founder of GrowSmart Maine.
Caron explained how the report was a compilation of 25 years of studies, including 150 studies on Maine’s economy, that at first received little interest.
“At first we had to beg for money to do the report. Now we’re getting 1,000 people reading the same information. It’s having a transformative effect on the state. We have over 4,000 copies out now,” said Caron.
Caron said the report has received a lot of public response.
“There’ve been a lot of responses to reports. There are over 200 news stories done in just the last couple days,” he said.
Caron sees big changes coming in Maine – in large part due to modern technological advances. With people now able to live in Maine yet work in far-off locations, such as Europe, Caron is optimistic about the state’s future.
“We’re poised for an era of sustained prosperity, but only if we’re ready and able to make tough choices,” he said.
Over 45 listening session have been held in the state, including Caribou and Dover-Foxcroft, to get feedback on issues affect citizens’ prosperity. Caron said he saw a common division at the meetings.
“We often divide ourselves in categories: northern/southern Maine, urban/rural – there are a million ways to divide ourselves and little to unite,” said Caron.
A common question, according to Caron, is how to grow without wrecking what we have.
“Whether you’re a native to the state or came here, you’re here intentionally. Those who stay, stay on purpose,” said Caron. “We’re ambivalent, not anti-growth.”
Caron said the report was asked to give “an unvarnished picture of Maine and how we are changing and to propose an action plan.” The plan had to address three questions:
• How can we build a stronger economy without wrecking what’s special about Maine?
• Are we organized to compete with other regions of the country? And
• How can we better work together on our common hopes for Maine?
Released on Oct. 5, 2006, the report advised the state should work to reduce administrative spending, use that funding to revitalize cities and towns and protect natural heritage, and invest in research and development innovation for both new and traditional industries.
“We’re resourceful people. We need to remold our resourcefulness,” said Caron. “It doesn’t have to be high-tech. It can be in agriculture, fisheries, the boat-building industry. We underestimate the advantages we have.”
One of those advantages that is being overlooked, according to Caron, is the tourism market and the dollars it brings to the state. He said Mainers undervalue services to this market.
“We have a quality of place. There are probably about five states in the country that if you mention the name of the state people have a positive image. Maine is one of those states,” said Caron. “Maine is a cheap date. We want tourism to grow; Maine’s a good bargain. But other states have figured out what tourists pay takes the burden off taxpayers.”
By increasing the lodging tax by just three cents, Maine could take in millions to be used to fund projects throughout the state, said Caron.
“It’s not just an idea to raise taxes for fun but to reinvest and revitalize areas – reinvest in the product, in Maine,” said Caron.
Caron’s comments bring to mind the state motto of ‘The way life should be’ – a motto that still holds true as more and more people move to the state to get away from crime and other issues that affect larger urban areas of the nation.
Caron indicated it’s not all good news and that Maine has serious problems.
“We’re our own worst enemy. We’re down on ourselves. But it’s the hopeful tone of the report that has connected with people,” he said. “Look at successful places. They have strategies. They know who they are and have express their unique strengths.”
Canon indicated it was better to “place a few big bets” rather than spread money thin trying to invest in too many areas at one time.
“Stick with it over time. You can’t zigzag every couple years,” he said.
The report also indicated it was time for Mainers to invest in new, innovative ways of doing things, rather than rely on past methods.
“We need to invest in tomorrow’s innovative economy by increase research and development funding,” said Caron. “We want to get behind models that work. We want to double spending for research and development in Maine.”
Caron indicted a $200 million bond to double research and development funding could be in the works by June of this year.
Revitalization of communities was another issue addressed by the report.
“We need to revitalize Maine communities – help local citizens plan for the future,” said Caron, noting it wasn’t a “one size fits all” process. “We need to let rural towns be rural, and so on.”
To invest, funds will need to be available – an issue the state has struggled with for years trying to determine whether to cut taxes or invest.
“How do we get it done? We can’t cut our way to prosperity. Taxes play a role in the economy but don’t drive the state to prosperity. We have to do both – make cuts and invest in the future,” said Caron. “Big changes don’t happen from the top. Don’t forget the little people. Big change has to take place at the bottom.”
A series of town meetings will be launched in February, to be held in every state district.
“I don’t care as much about the details. I care about the big ideas,” said Caron. “There are 1,000 ways to divide ourselves – two Maines and so on. That division is killing us. We need to try to promote the idea that we’re one Maine. We can have diversity but need to act like one Maine.”
For more information or to provide input, visit www.GrowSmartMaine.org.
“And if you’re interested in helping this kind of change, log on and register,” said Caron.