Raise the profile of rural Maine

Posted May 07, 2009, at 6:10 p.m.

A century ago my grandfather traveled from a small village in Russia to Ellis Island, where he arrived with 17 cents in his pocket. He became an itinerant peddler and traveled to Washington County. Eventually, he and my grandmother settled in Calais. There they raised my father, Arthur, who worked full time in the family store after graduating from the 8th grade and never finished high school. But Arthur knew something about the importance of education. He and my mother made great sacrifices to send me to college.

Husson University also believes in the connection between educational achievement and economic progress. Under Bill Beardsley’s leadership, Husson has expanded its offerings in communications, health, pharmacy, and boatbuilding. Husson has also expanded geographically, reaching into Washington County. Suitably enough, its Calais center is in a building on Main Street built by my father.

Husson is now working with the University of New Brunswick to serve students from the St. Stephen and St. Andrews region. This is only one of a number of cooperative education efforts along the border. The Maine Community College System is cooperating with its counterpart in New Brunswick to expand course offerings in the St. Croix River Valley area. Public school systems in St. Stephen and Calais and Eastport are working with Stanford University to provide an online math education program to hundreds of students.

These efforts are models for what should be going on more widely along the Maine and Canadian border. Biologists will tell you that border regions in natural ecosystems are places of creativity and productivity. The same thing is true for the economy. Border regions bring together people with different cultures, resources and skills.

The St. Croix River Valley is one of the most beautiful places on earth. A few years ago, I attended an awards dinner in Berkeley, Calif., with a young man named Jerry Yang. Yang is the founder of Yahoo. He talked to me about the kind of place he wanted to live — near the ocean, unspoiled, with forests and fields, and a rich history. I said to him, “You’ve described the area where I grew up.” This is the same point that has been made by Gov. John Baldacci’s Quality of Place Council. What Maine has to offer, what its competitive advantage is in the modern economy, is its beauty as a place to live and work.

But first the Jerry Yangs of the world need to hear about rural Maine. One way to raise the profile of a rural area is to create a signature attraction to encourage people to travel and visit. In the St. Croix River Valley, such an attraction would be the Roosevelt International Trail, a proposed walking-running-biking path along the rugged waterfront of the St. Croix River and Passamaquoddy Bay. The trail would begin in Campobello, the international park where Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s summer home still stands, and extend along both sides of the bay to Calais and St. Stephen. Statues would be interspersed throughout the trail telling the history of Canada and the United States from 1872 to 1945 through the prism of Roosevelt’s life. Parts of the trail would be accessible for people with disabilities. The trail would appeal to naturalists, historic buffs, and bicyclists and hikers.

Much has changed since my grandfather and grandmother arrived in Calais a century ago. Education is still the road to individual opportunity, but now there are new ways to learn — young students in Robbinston, Maine, connect through the internet to teaching programs at Stanford University. The railroads are gone, the mills are struggling, but aquaculture, cruise ships, pellet manufacturing, specialty foods, sport fishing, and sailing offer new potential. The St. Croix River Valley is still sparsely populated, but now cooperation over the border creates the economies of scale needed to make necessary investments. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”

The administration and students at Husson University are among those who are thinking and acting anew. I am honored, by the reception of my degree, to be counted in this group.

Sidney Unobskey is an international real estate developer and philanthropist who lives in Robbinston and San Francisco. He will receive an honorary degree from Husson University on Saturday.

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