You may have heard the joke, usually told by a native Mainer with multigenerational roots, delivered in a laconic Down East accent: “Busy summer. Didn’t go far. Only left the state once. And that was when I went to Portland.”
The joke illustrates a perception among some Mainers that the southern part of the state somehow lacks authenticity. It’s not the real Maine. It’s populated by yuppies, if such a label still exists. Or at least lots of people with tattoos and dreadlocks. Portland’s economy is suspect because it revolves around boutiques, art galleries and fancy-schmancy restaurants.
And, of course, Portland is unabashedly liberal, embracing every environmentally green, socially tolerant trend that finds its way here, they believe. Residents have even elected gay and Green Party legislators. These progressive leanings may be the ultimate black mark against it for the more conservative Mainers who live in the northern third of the state.
Whether or not Gov. Paul LePage told his former marine resources commissioner to divert efforts at reviving fishing from Portland to other ports because the city is “against” him, that view exists among some people in power in Maine. It is a shortsightedness that could hamper the state’s efforts to grow its economy.
The governor received a meager 19 percent support from Portland voters in the 2010 election. And to be fair, he wouldn’t be the first elected official to punish an area in which he was politically weak or reward an area which supports him.
But if former Commissioner Norman Olsen accurately related what the governor said, it would be consistent with what Mr. LePage said during a candidate forum last year: “In southern Maine, yes, there’s a lot of kooks down there.”
Kooks or not, here are some facts about Maine’s largest city. The first is that with a population of 64,000, it’s really not a city. If Portland were in Massachusetts, it would be the 15th largest town. But if we consider South Portland, Westbrook, Cape Elizabeth and other communities as part of the Greater Portland region, the population is 230,000. More than 3.6 million visit Portland each year, so it effectively waves Maine’s tourist banner.
Though some in Maine might snort derisively, Portland could best be understood as the northern-most community in the Greater Boston area. And that’s not bad company to keep. New Hampshire’s unemployment rate is 4.9 percent and Massachusetts’ is 7.6 percent, while Maine’s is 7.8 percent. Cumberland County’s unemployment rate is 6.2 percent.
A study completed for the Portland Regional Chamber found that 42.4 percent of the jobs in the state were based in the Greater Portland region. It also accounted for 44.2 percent of total state personal income and 42.7 percent of gross state product. And Portland taxpayers — corporate and individual — essentially underwrite much of state government activity in the northern part of Maine.
The Portland animus is not likely to go away soon. But a more sophisticated understanding of the role it plays in the state’s economy and culture is needed.