NORTHPORT, Maine — The ballroom at Point Lookout was packed with 400 of the state’s most high-powered businessmen and women, politicians and philanthropists Friday, during the Maine Development Foundation’s 33rd annual meeting.
But their fancy job titles didn’t stop anyone from singing along when nationally known folklorist Nick Spitzer played a clip of Maine country music legend Dick Curless’s truck-driving anthem “Tombstone Every Mile.”
Spitzer spoke positively of Curless’s truck-driving culture, of Franco-American culture, Somali immigrant culture, and other cultures brought to Maine by “people from away.”
“I love Maine and all its cultures,” he said. “Mainers have had a great ability, I think, to absorb and to transform.”
Spitzer, who hosts the weekly American Routes radio program, was making the point that Maine’s own cultural roots stretch wide and deep. His keynote speech focused on continuity and creativity in the state’s cultural economy — ideas that are key at the Maine Development Foundation.
The Augusta-based nonprofit strives to drive sustainable, long-term economic growth for Maine. The foundation’s programs help stimulate new ideas, develop leaders, and provide common ground for solving problems and advancing issues, according to its mission statement.
In between playing snippets of songs from Franco-American fiddlers, Curless and others, Spitzer spoke powerfully of the need to preserve the state’s cultural heritage without locking it “in a museum.”
“Why do we care so much about the past?” he asked. “There is something very important to people about connecting with cultural continuity in all ways.”
Mainers who might be inclined to be suspicious of all outsiders — even those who live in a different county or a different town — could find that there’s much to be gained by openness, he said.
But all in all, the state has what he calls “deep soul.”
“Quality of life comes down to something special,” Spitzer said. “Everybody who comes to Maine knows about the beauty of the place and also about the intimacy of the place. Many, many people still live here with their doors unlocked. In America, where there’s so much strife and trouble, the idea of ‘doors unlocked’ is a very powerful thing.”
Sustained applause greeted his speech, as the state’s movers and shakers then filed out to mingle in the hallways, their voices creating an exciting buzz.
“It’s a fun, positive and feel-good day,” said Ed Cervone, the senior program director of the foundation. “It’s energizing. You leave upbeat.”
He said that the daylong meeting’s theme was “Transforming Maine.”
“We have no lack of great ideas, great leaders, great businesses in the state,” Cervone said. “We can all agree that we need to act on it, to transform Maine to create opportunities for all Maine people.”
Laurie Lachance, the foundation’s president and former Maine State Economist, said that her mission was to make attendees learn something new about the many positive happenings in the state.
“So frequently we’re bombarded by all the messages of what’s wrong with Maine,” she said, adding that the state recently was found to be second-most pessimistic in the nation, according to a national survey.
“When I look around Maine, I see so much,” she said. “Wise leaders know when things are bad, that’s the time we invest in our future. What are you going to do to move Maine forward? To turn these dreams into a reality?”
She showed the audience slide after slide of businesses that have invested in the state, of major philanthropic gifts made to universities, of growing innovation conferences and other positive changes.
“It’s interesting to see there’s a lot of companies that did not get the doom and gloom memo,” Lachance said.
After her speech, attendee Cheryl Rust, who owns Le Garage restaurant in Wiscasset, said that the annual meeting is reminding her of the state’s “rich diversity.”
“It’s exciting,” she said. “I love being around people who are creative thinkers. It’s a magnet for people who want to have their fuses lit.”