Targeting Quality

Posted Jan. 15, 2010, at 6:58 p.m.

For decades, Maine’s economic development strategy amounted to begging manufacturers to relocate here. Despite tax breaks and low-interest loans, the hundreds of empty lots in industrial parks across the state are testimony to the failure of that strategy.

The 2006 Brookings Institution report, “Charting Maine’s Future: An Action Plan for Promoting Sustainable Prosperity and Quality Places,” identified an approach that turned those traditional methods upside down. Rather than try to conjure what we don’t see, the report urged Maine policymakers to instead shine a light on the assets the state already possesses — small, attractive historic downtowns; access to water; outdoor recreational opportunities; and that oh-so-intangible but critical piece — quality of life.

Rather than looking for an economic savior to choose Maine over other states, where energy costs, access to markets and labor pools are more attractive, the quality of life focus aims to polish our towns and cities so they can be showcased as great places to live. Great places to live, it turns out, are fertile grounds for homegrown businesses to germinate and blossom. And if junior executives of an expanding business can see themselves and their families living in a vibrant Maine town or city, that business is more likely to set up shop here.

The latest initiative in the quality of life strategy comes in LD 1389, which is a framework for funneling Maine’s limited historic preservation, transportation, cultural, land conservation, recreational and economic development grant money toward projects that polish our assets. The bill is a logical step toward putting the quality of place approach in gear. And best of all, it does not require new funds; rather, it targets existing grant programs to projects that comprehensively enhance a town, city or region. So grant applications to, for example, the Department of Transportation for a pedestrian walkway will be given more points if the project is shown to be part of an asset-based development strategy.

The notion of quality of place can be so vague as to mean nothing. What makes it more difficult to explain and sell is that it typically does not result in a big-name business relocating to Maine with hundreds of jobs (although MBNA’s move here came directly as a result of quality of life considerations).

Rather, quality of life brings, or retains, young men and women who are professionals or entrepreneurs. With the Internet, they can live and work anywhere, but if they are able to raise children in safe environments with good schools, walk or bicycle to their offices or studios, and be 20 minutes from hiking, skiing and kayaking opportunities, they will choose Maine.

LD 1389 directs state government to bet on our future; not only is it a safe bet, but at the moment, it is the only bet.

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