Editor’s note: This is the second of two parts about Maine poverty.
You know the pattern of unemployment and poverty in Maine without looking at a map: The largely rural “rim” counties have rates that make a broad middle class standard of living elusive in good times and impossible in bad.
Franklin and Washington counties had unemployment rates of 10.2 percent in June, according to the Maine Department of Labor. Piscataquis County followed with 9.5 percent, Oxford County with 9.4 percent and Aroostook and Somerset counties with 9.3 percent. The state unemployment rate is 7.6 percent.
Maine has responded for decades with a variety of programs, projects, studies, zones and, at times, desperate pleas. Nothing has worked particularly well, and the fact that broad government-driven strategies often have not yielded desired results points to a need for a new way of thinking about the daunting task of creating jobs in rural Maine. One idea is for local or regional leaders to capitalize on the assets rural areas already possess.
Launched in 2009, Mobilize Maine is an encouraging attempt at this. It aims to realign regional economic development districts to better reflect shared opportunities. It focuses on creating “small wins,” though in reality the projects often have substantial local effects.
Mobilize Maine fits in with the larger sense that niche markets for Maine are essential, as paper mills in Jay and Bucksport have already demonstrated. Rural areas also have great potential as clean energy producers. And the quality of place can be marketed to attract not only tourists but workers in cutting-edge industries such as biotechnology and telecommunications.
For Aroostook County, that means finding a private donor to open an alternative energy training and education center at Northern Maine Community College.
It also means letting local people identify assets and take advantage of them. In Aroostook County, biomass is proving to be a readily available resource upon which entrepreneurs can build a local economy and hopefully an export business.
The creation of a biomass industry in Aroostook County is made possible by private businesses and economic development professionals, and it represents a modernization of the traditional forestry and agriculture work sectors. Jobs exist now for the conversion of oil-fueled commercial properties to biomass, and switching to a Maine-based energy source keeps all of production and delivery costs in Maine.
To date, 16 biomass conversions during the past year in Aroostook County have generated more than $20 million for the local economy, according to the Northern Maine Economic Development Commission.
For Washington County, “small wins” means a new lobster storage plant in Eastport and welcoming Ocean Renewable Power Co.’s first-in-the-nation tidal energy program at Cobscook Bay. The projects are entrepreneurial in nature and focus on generating energy rather than consuming it.
It makes sense to foster business relationships that make it possible for the success of startups, such as composites manufacturers in places like Bath and Brunswick, to radiate out into rural areas. That type of collaboration recognizes that businesses throughout Maine must play a role in promoting job growth in rural Maine.
In this asset-based model that relies on communities and local businesses to chart their own economic development strategies, government also plays an important role. It must provide and maintain infrastructure — which includes information technology, in addition to roads and bridges — and funding in the form of grants and loans for projects that clearly demonstrate broad regional value. It must create the positive business environment.
No government initiative will help boost economic growth in rural areas if local people are not supportive, though. The entrepreneurs and hard-working people in Maine’s rural areas ultimately will power the economic engine and play a large role in determining the fate of the “rim” counties’ middle class.