BANGOR, Maine — Four of the five candidates for governor discussed their ideas for preserving Maine’s “quality of place” on Tuesday during a mild-mannered debate that touched on planned growth, land conservation and ways to revive the state’s historic downtown districts.
During a forum sponsored by 12 nonprofit organizations, the four participating candidates — Democrat Libby Mitchell and independents Shawn Moody, Kevin Scott and Eliot Cutler — agreed that it is possible to protect Maine’s natural environment while encouraging economic growth.
Republican Paul LePage did not attend Tuesday’s forum because of a scheduling conflict.
One issue raised was how the state can work to preserve public access to private lands while addressing the concerns of landowners.
Mitchell said landowner relations programs that connect groups or individuals with the people or companies that own the land often are key to fostering better understanding and addressing problems.
But Mitchell said the state needs to continue funding the Land for Maine’s Future program, which uses voter-approved bonds to purchase land or conservation easements on land considered to be of exceptional ecological or recreational value or for farmland or working waterfront preservation.
Since its inception more than 20 years ago, LMF has helped protect more than 500,000 acres by working with willing sellers.
Cutler said the LMF template does not work for some landowners. He also said that with the state facing an estimated $1 billion shortfall, the reality is that Maine is simply not going to have any money in the immediate future to acquire land for conservation purposes.
“Until we get the economy growing again … we are going to have to do a better job with easements and other templates,” said Cutler, a Cape Elizabeth lawyer who previously worked for Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie and in the Carter administration.
That was a chorus that Cutler repeated during Tuesday’s event, saying the next governor must fix the state’s financial problems before discussing any new initiatives.
Moody said ensuring a healthy working forest is important not only for Maine’s forest products and tourism industries but also to combat the effects of global warming. He pledged to do all he could to maintain public access to private lands, including using tax programs or other leverage.
Scott said he would work to ensure there was a consistent and predictable funding source for land conservation that the Legislature could not “dip into” in tough economic times.
The candidates also were asked questions about steps they would take to encourage economic development while preventing sprawl and promoting “smart growth,” including the redevelopment or renovation of Maine’s downtown areas.
Scott held up his small hometown of Andover as a model of a livable community where nearly everything is located within walking or biking distance of the downtown area. But Scott said his administration would target industries that fit best into downtowns and would invest in a broad range of research and development to attract high-tech industries.
Mitchell hailed the success of tax incentive programs offered by the state that encourage the redevelopment of historic structures, such as converting abandoned mills into new uses. Such incentives encourage private investment, and she pledged to fight to preserve or expand such programs.
Cutler, meanwhile, said the most significant steps the state can take to redevelop its downtown areas would be to remove the obstacles that discourage business development. Those include high energy and health care costs, burdensome regulation and unpredictability in the regulatory process.
Cutler discussed his plans for an Office of Regulatory Review and Repeal to eliminate unnecessary red tape and for an Energy Finance Authority that would negotiate deals to lower energy costs. The state also must encourage the expansion of natural gas lines into communities along the Kennebec, Penobscot and Androscoggin rivers as a way to lure economic development, he said.
Moody said there are technological tools available that can help communities improve their planning.
But Moody suggested that instead of spending millions of dollars trying to lure large, out-of-state corporations to move into Maine, the state’s economic development officials could have a bigger impact by focusing on ways to improve business conditions for small companies already in Maine.
“I’m a small-business guy,” said Moody, founder of the Moody Collision Centers auto repair chain. “There are 30,000 small businesses in this state. If they could just hire one person each, you’re talking about 30,000 jobs.”
Tuesday’s forum, held at the Penobscot Theater in downtown Bangor, was co-sponsored by the following groups: Bicycle Coalition of Maine, Casco Bay Estuary Partnership, GrowSmart Maine, Healthy Community Coalition, Maine Conservation Voters Education Fund, Maine Development Foundation’s Downtown Center, Maine Downtown Coalition, Maine Farmland Trust, Maine Preservation, Maine Rural Partners, Trust for Public Land and the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine.