Maine is a rural state existing in a global marketplace that largely benefits from urban commerce. The state’s blessing — beautiful and expansive landscapes — is also its curse, as limited economic activity must support wide-ranging infrastructure needs. A small population, especially in rural areas, makes it difficult to draw businesses and development opportunities. Readers of these pages know well the challenges of small-town life — and the joys.
They will understand that the possibility of closing their towns and redirecting their state dollars to more urban centers is unsupportable. As he wrote in a report released Wednesday, gubernatorial hopeful Democrat Steve Woods, of Yarmouth, is correct that future growth is projected for urban — not rural — areas, and that state government helps fund towns that do not return the contribution in economic ways. Three counties in the Greater Portland region now generate more than half the state’s economic output.
But possibly closing a town because it has a high percentage of mothers and fathers receiving food stamps, or encouraging residents to move to more urban areas, is uncompassionate. As a political nonstarter, the proposal draws attention away from real efforts needed to bring more economic stability to both rural and urban areas. To his credit, Woods agreed with that sentiment on Thursday.
“I portrayed only one dimension to a very complex and very important discussion and situation for many Mainers,” he said. “I stand by my assertion that we have a significant number of towns that are in financial distress, but, going forward, I will be more deliberate in describing my feelings on how to assist those people in distress and working toward finding solutions for them and all other Mainers.”
Woods did succeed in stirring debate about an important topic: How to allocate limited resources between urban and rural communities. State and local leaders should not invest in failing industries at the expense of burgeoning ones, but simply abandoning low-density areas avoids the fact that officials do have some ability to alter the state’s economic trajectory. Low population densities can be a disadvantage for some industries but a positive one for others, such as information technology and tourism, which have the capacity to spur other types of development and demand for services.
Consider that investment in research, such as at laboratories and universities, is increasingly important in modern competition, according to a study by the Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness at Harvard Business School. Community colleges can update their curricula to focus more on subjects like business management and entrepreneurship. The business creations of entrepreneurs can trigger the establishment of suppliers and related businesses. New companies typically emerge from current ones. And areas with a higher percentage of people with high school and college degrees are more likely to see faster growth.
Economic development experts often talk about “clusters,” which are interconnected companies and institutions in a geographic area that have a particular field in common. Building on a region’s strengths and expanding the clusters instead of copying the actions of other regions can lead to greater development. Rural communities can improve their connectivity to more urban municipalities, so companies can better collaborate on marketing, purchasing and product development. They can also increase access to technology.
Rural areas underperform urban areas, and the disparity has worsened over time, as made clear in research by economics professor John Quigley. The solution, though, lies not in talking about getting rid of rural communities, but building on the opportunities those communities provide. The solution lies also in recognizing that one statewide approach to economic development is unfair, as each region, whether urban or rural, has different strengths.