AUGUSTA, Maine — The global economy may be in crisis.
The stock market might appear to be in a free fall.
And the Maine state government is facing budget shortfalls that will force lawmakers to make tough decisions about what programs to cut.
But this is exactly the wrong time to skimp on investing in a progressive vision of Maine’s future, argued an expert from a Washington, D.C., think tank Friday at the 2008 GrowSmart Maine Summit at the Augusta Civic Center.
“The current crisis has not repealed the fundamentals,” Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution said. “Innovation matters. Quality of place matters. … This is not just a frame for good times. This is a frame for bad times.”
Katz was a lead author of the Brookings Institution’s provocative 2006 report on sustainable prosperity for the state, called “Charting Maine’s Future.” The report argued that Maine should protect its “brand” — its quality of place — above all else.
Other recommendations included streamlining state government and investing in job-creating research and development.
Katz came back to assess how the state is doing with implementing some of the report’s sweeping calls for reform.
The verdict? So far, so good, but it’s just the beginning.
“There has been enormous progress in this state,” Katz said. “What you’re struck by is how much has been done.”
Some highlights of that progress include:
• The school consolidation plan that would reduce the number of school districts from 286 to 80.
• The Legislature’s passage of statewide building and energy codes and a historic schools preservation bill.
• Approval of a $17 million bond for land conservation and a $55 million bond for research and development.
However, there’s still much work to be done, according to the policy expert. Even though Maine’s “quality of place” is one of the state’s major selling points, it has a very high rate of sprawl that’s second only to the rate in Virginia.
Between 1980 and 2000, 869,000 acres of rural land were converted to suburban use, he said.
“Sprawl is alive and well in this state,” Katz said. “The state’s not focused on redeveloping its core. … You’re the last place that should be sprawling, because you have a brand.”
In tough times, Mainers will have to fight to hang on to that brand, said Alan Caron of GrowSmart Maine, the nonprofit that sponsored the summit and paid for the 2006 report.
“My apprehension is that with what’s happening with the marketplace, we’ll go into an entirely defensive mode,” Caron said. “We’ll work only on balancing the budget and not working towards the future. And we can’t really afford to stop thinking about the future.”
The Waterville native said that Maine is facing an unprecedented set of challenges.
“Look at what we’re facing — the global market is weakening, the budget deficit is growing, energy prices are exploding and our communities are in sure peril,” Caron said. “But every crisis contains an opportunity, an opportunity for Maine to grow a green economy.”
Toward that end, the summit featured sessions with optimistic names such as “Can Maine become the green energy state?” and “Innovating our way out of fiscal crisis.” The 500 attendees gave their suggestions for the state’s future and hardly groused at all about its difficult economic present.
Nate Wildes, an 18-year-old political science major and “innovation” minor from the University of Maine, went to the green energy session and came out inspired.
“I have the fire in my gut right now,” he said. “In 10 years, I hope the state will be independent of all outside energy and economically stable enough to support itself. Right now, we just need to start. We need to pull our boots out of the ground and just start running.”