Move to Maine, Please

Posted Dec. 29, 2009, at 6:58 p.m.

The news that New Hampshire’s population has eclipsed Maine’s for the first time since the census of 1800 is much more than a statistical footnote. It is definitive evidence of a powerful economic trend linked to geography. Those who care about the fate of the northern two-thirds of Maine would do well to consider its implications.

Both states are in the 1.3 million range, but according to new census estimates, the Granite State has 6,274 more people than the Pine Tree State; New Hampshire gained 89,000 new residents since 2000, while Maine saw just 43,000 newcomers.

State policymakers make little fuss over Maine’s lack of population growth when they decry the challenges the economy faces. Yet population growth is critical.

Southern New Hampshire and southern Maine increasingly are spokes linked to the Boston hub. Could Portland, Lewiston-Auburn and Bangor be hubs to which some parts of Maine can similarly link? And how might this be achieved?

No one wants to see a huge influx, straining services and spurring further sprawl. But a growing population, whose median age is getting younger, not older, would bring hope. People in their 20s and 30s start businesses, bring fresh education and new skills to the work force, start families and buy and fix-up homes. Their spending charges the economic pump. Their children fill schools, which justifies keeping many of them open, and in turn creates economic activity.

Census work will soon begin, and by sometime next year, we will have a better handle on Maine’s actual population. The counties that lost population and those that gained must be scrutinized and some conclusions must be drawn as to where and how to focus limited state resources. That is a hard truth to confront, but it must be faced. Each region of the state must be realistic about what its best shots are for growth. It may be niche agriculture, creative economy startup businesses, tourism or even retirement housing.

In the 1970s, many demographers predicted a Boston to Washington D.C. urban corridor soon would develop in which it was impossible to distinguish the end of one city and the start of another. That hasn’t happened. Instead, the Atlantic South, California, the Rocky Mountain region and the Southwest have grown far faster.

Recruiting in-migrants could be a proactive step to take. Just as tourism promotion targets certain demographic groups, a coalition of businesses and the state could join forces to get information into the hands of certain age groups with certain education and job skills and urge them to move here. The quality of life Maine offers would top the list, along with its relatively low housing costs.

Deterrents remain. Long, cold winters, high heating and electric costs, a somewhat seasonal economy and other problems make Maine a tough sell. But those of us who live here know the good outweighs the bad.

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