MACHIAS, Maine — Nancy Smith, the executive director of Grow Smart Maine, visited the Down East area this summer, traveling up the coast from Stonington to Calais.
“Some people may have the impression that Washington County is the end of the world,’’ she said. “No, I discovered it is the center of everything.” Smith said that optimism is the key, and when the global and national economy begins to recover many Down East communities will be ready and open for business.
In a recent conversation, Smith assessed her visit — a delayed assessment due to an unplanned visit to France. Grow Smart Maine is a nonprofit, nongovernmental entity that was created to combat sprawl but has evolved to provide services and advice to communities of all sizes. As part of a statewide assessment, Smith has spent the last year visiting areas of the state and determining what efforts are under way to promote sustainable growth and how those efforts can be replicated in other communities. Smith will create a final report by the end of the year along with an action plan that individual towns and cities can use as a guide.
Smith singled out Stonington, in Hancock County, and Eastport, in Washington County, as two coastal places that are really moving forward. She spoke of the custom Eastport has of dropping both a sardine, honoring the city’s fishing heritage, and a maple leaf, honoring its Canadian neighbors, on New Year’s Eve.
“They are building on their uniqueness in a fun and funky way,” she said. “That is such a creative way to build.” Smith said Eastport has “active, engaged and hopeful residents that are stepping up and making a difference. It is vital to have both a plan and committed people.”
Eastport has a lot going for it, she said, including a multimillion dollar expansion at its deep-water port and a strong fishery as well as vital arts, culture and hospitality businesses. “When you combine that with the hydro-power research in the bay and the wind power projects nearby, that is really exciting,” she said.
“Some towns get it,” she said, “and are positioning themselves to move forward, while others are not. Each town and city, however, needs to continually assess its assets and challenges.”
Smith said Stonington, although smaller than Eastport, has a five-year economic development plan in place that is based on diversified industries and includes the shoulder tourist seasons — fall and spring — and a lively fishery. She said Stonington also shares an optimism for its future with the city of Eastport. “In both places, engaged people are making the difference,” she said.
Smith said she was very impressed that whenever she needed to connect with the nongovernmental leaders within a Down East community, she discovered those were women. “I heard from the fishing communities that this is part of the Down East culture. The men went fishing while the women stayed on land and built the communities. I do not see this strong a female leadership presence in the rest of the state.”
Smith said that so many Down East communities work in isolation, or what she called silos. “What Grow Smart Maine has is the ability to look at the bigger picture, to see how a community can fit into the larger role within the state or region,” she said. “We can help people understand the overall impact of small losses and gains and how to make them all gains.”
But first, she said, Down East communities need to sit back and recognize that they are on the right path. “They are doing the right things, for the most part,” she said. “What Down East people need to ask is ‘What is happening in MY community? Growth will be community by community as they take the energy from those answers and continue moving forward.”
Smith said Grow Smart Maine is in the process of gathering its notes from visits across the state and creating an overall growth plan. “We will create a progress report and an action plan for the future,” she said. “What matters is impact. We will be asking ourselves what were the different investments made in the individual communities and what were the results. What jobs were created? What direction has been set?”