April 25, 2018
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Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

If you had a friend who looked in the mirror and saw himself as Brad Pitt or herself as Giselle Bundchen, and the visual evidence was quite to the contrary, would you exercise a little tough love? Isn’t it important for people to confront reality, and to act accordingly? As a state, Maine often sees it-self in ways that do not match reality. And without an accurate self-assessment, the chances of self-improvement are slim.

Because Maine is in the populous Northeast, we think of ourselves as peers with southern New England and mid-Atlantic states. But Maine’s population of 1.3 million is dwarfed by those states and some of those cities. The population of Massachusetts is 6.5 million, and Boston’s population is 645,000 — half of Maine’s.

So Maine, then, is rural, and our largest cities (Portland, pop. 62,000 and Bangor, pop. 31,000) are really like small towns. And the state’s relatively sparse population is flung across an area nearly equal to the other five New England states combined. More context — the nation’s population growth is increasingly concentrated in the Southwest and Atlantic South.

Maine is also, relatively speaking, remote. Again, the state lies adjacent to the Washington, D.C.-to-Boston corridor, but since Maine is in the northeasternmost corner of the lower 48, we are not on the road to anywhere. The distance to markets has been a challenge for Maine manufacturers since the age of sail ended. And it is a cold state. Weather, and the high cost of heating, often drives business decisions, and it certainly inhibits population growth. Our population is old, and getting older. And compared to our New England peers, we are less educated.

None of this is to say we should abandon all hope. There is much about Maine to propel an informed optimism about our economic fate. But a cold, hard look in the mirror will guide policymakers toward realistic, prioritized improvements.

Homegrown businesses must be given every opportunity to flourish and expand, rather than tax incentives aimed at landing the big, out-of-state company. Our small-town cities and towns must be friendly to the creative, entrepreneurial class, those younger adults who can work anywhere, but who choose to live where outdoor recreation and small-scale community rule.

We must continue to address our energy challenges. Reducing the cost of electricity must be a priority for the next governor and Legislature. Making Maine homes and businesses energy-efficient also must be a focus.

And we must work to supply the most important ingredients of a thriving economy — a growing, young, well-educated population. Innovative approaches such as providing tax credits to college grads to cover their student loan payments, even if they were educated outside Maine (an expansion of the existing Opportunity Maine program), must be on the table.

Just as a hot dog stand doesn’t compete with a white tablecloth restaurant, Maine must accept and maximize its niche. The only difference between the ugly duckling in high school who turns heads at the 25th reunion is confidence and a strong sense of self.

Have feedback? Want to know more? Send us ideas for follow-up stories.

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