The water cooler. Often a hub of office conversation, it is where colleagues gather and talk about things other than cash flow projections or marketing strategy. Typically, in March, water-cooler topics are almost exclusively related to NCAA basketball “bracketology.”
This year in Maine, however, we’ve mixed it up a bit. Our discussions have tended to center on topics such as murals and whoopie pies. Do we need an official state dessert? Should the mural in the state’s Department of Labor office have been removed? Recently, both of these topics have become part of the daily dialogue somewhere in Maine.
But what do either of these have to do with the economic vitality of our state?
From an economic development perspective, the arts — such as murals, and food products, such as the whoopie pie — create businesses and jobs for our residents. Rosie the Riveter at Bath Iron Works and textile and shoemakers have reminded us of Maine’s unique past. The L.L. Bean boot — still handcrafted here in Maine — helps to keep our feet warm and dry. All of these products also provide a significant number of manufacturing jobs and distribution of other Maine products.
In his best-selling book, “The Rise of the Creative Class,” Richard Florida makes sense of terms such as “knowledge-based economy” and the “creative class” of workers. He stresses their importance for the future of our economy. He reminds us that “the ‘creative class’ is found in a variety of fields, from engineering to theater, biotech to education, architecture to small business.”
At the Maine Conference on Creative Economy, held in Lewiston in 2004, researchers expanded the definition of creative industries to include technology sectors, which rely on creative workers and creative ideas for innovation and growth. A white paper, “Maine’s Creative Economy Effort,” prepared in 2007 by Jody Harris of the Maine State Planning Office, provided the following information:
- 63,342 people were employed in the creative sector in Maine; 55,889 were in the technology sector and 7,543 in the arts and culture sector;
- The creative sector provided about 10 percent of all Maine’s wage and salary employment (8.8 percent technology and 1.2 percent arts and culture, respectively).
The research concluded that the creative economy today is a large and important part of Maine’s overall economy.
Maine always has been known for its innovation and creativity. As a people, Maine residents are known for our ingenuity. We know how to take something very simple and create a product that has a value-added use. A project such as the University of Maine’s Advanced Structures and Composites’ bridge-in-a-backpack, which recently received the Charles Pankow Award for Innovation, is a great example. This award-winning technology offers a way to build bridges faster, at less cost and with increased durability.
As economic development continues to evolve, knowledge-based growth sectors such as the creative economy stand out as viable and realistic options. Maine’s creative businesses comprise far more than the traditional visual and performing arts. They include architectural and graphic, landscape, and industrial design business, commercial printing and the expanding “new media” enterprises. They also include value-added food products such as whoopie pies, lobster pizzas and other foods where creative-minded Maine business owners have taken an existing food, developed and marketed a niche and turned it into a well-known — and sought-after — product.
Take the whoopie pie. According to Amos Orcutt, president of the Maine Whoopie Pie Association, the state traces the origin of whoopie pies to Labadie’s Bakery in Lewiston. Labadie’s, a third-generation bakery, has had employees making them since 1925. According to a 2009 New York Times article, the whoopie pie was being served in trendy New York bakeries, including Magnolia Bakery — the same establishment that started the cupcake craze after being featured on HBO’s “Sex and the City.” Williams-Sonoma was selling one version made in Maine and using local butter and organic eggs (more support for our local economy), for $49 a dozen! In the Bangor area, LaBree’s Bakery in Old Town employs more than 300 people making and baking sweet treats. On a personal level, the best whoopie pie is from Friar’s Bakeshop on Central Street in Bangor or Stephanie Blanchard’s Christmas desert buffet! We may not always think of dessert as helping to sustain our economy, but it does.
Finally, a good reason not to skip dessert!
It is important that we take advantage of the innovation and creativity of Maine businesses and workers. Our public policy needs to ensure that our educational institutions, from K-12 through higher education, promote innovation and build upon our heritage of ingenuity. Our future is dependent on recognizing that the creative economy is the arts, culture and technology. Creative workers are just as important as innovative businesses. Creative workers are equally mobile in today’s global economy, and they are as highly skilled as businesses maneuvering product and services to the market. We need to show them that we value them, their skills and their ideas. We want them to come here. And to stay here.
The next time I’m at the water cooler I’ll add my observations to the comments on whoopie pies and murals. I see them as an important asset and example of Maine’s economy. Maybe others will see them as just March Madness!
Michael W. Aube is president of Eastern Maine Development Corp. in Bangor. He is a past commissioner of Maine’s Department of Economic and Community Development and former state director of Maine USDA Rural Development.