The county population numbers in the 2010 census are bad news for Maine.
Aroostook County lost more than 2,000 residents (2.8 percent) in the decade since 2000. In the same period, Washington County lost a little over a thousand (3.2 percent). And none of the growth in Maine’s 14 other counties broke double digits. The most growth in the last decade was in Waldo County, at 6.9 percent.
The quick explanation is that population growth and loss is tied to the economy. With the nation and Maine coming out of the worst recession in 75 years, it’s not surprising that an already slowly growing, aging state would stagnate further. Some young and middle-aged workers who lost jobs will have moved to urban centers, where they at least could land low-paying jobs. Entrepreneurs would not have chosen Maine to start a new business, given the sparse and poorer population.
In the 1990-2000 period, the picture was quite different. But it was a picture, a snapshot in time. The economic boom of the late 1990s was good to Maine, and the census that came in the midst of that boom reflects it. In the 2000 census, four coastal counties — Hancock, Waldo, Knox and Lincoln — saw growth in the 9.1 percent to 10.7 percent range.
The trend lines over the previous 20 years are most instructive about the future of our state. From 1990 to 2010, Aroostook County lost 17.3 percent of its population, Washington County lost 6.9 percent and Piscataquis County lost 6 percent. Over the same period, York County grew by 19.8 percent, Waldo County grew by 17.5 percent, Hancock County and Cumberland County each grew by 15.9 percent and Lincoln County grew by 13.5 percent.
What do the double-digit growth counties have in common? They all touch salt water. Which is something Washington County boosters must understand. People who relocate to the growing coastal counties like recreational access to the water. They also seek attractive downtowns with cultural, social and entertainment amenities like libraries, clubs, restaurants and movie theaters
Someone commenting on the census story on the BDN’s website displayed the conundrum: “I was born and raised in Washington County but had to leave to find a job … a Wendy’s … a shoe store … a Sam’s Club, and had to come back to get some peace of mind!”
A winning strategy for Maine’s rural counties might be to polish and market the “peace of mind” — no traffic, low crime, friendly towns — while also developing vital commercial centers.
But the biggest lesson to be learned from the 1990-2010 trend lines is a glass-is-half-empty or half-full assessment. And it’s a hard assessment to make. But like a farmer giving up on planting corn in the rocky soil at the far reaches of his field, Maine’s economic development policy must focus on where growth has happened and where it is likely to continue.
When real estate prices increase along the southern and midcoast again, population growth opportunities will lie in counties such as Washington, Penobscot and Kennebec. We must be ready.