An April 24 BDN article reported that the retail economy in Bangor is slowly picking up steam. This is good news. We want to be a destination with diverse options for businesses and consumers alike. That being said, when I pay my bill at one of the big retailers or chain restaurants, I can’t help but imagine that the moment I hand over my payment it is swept out of state through a tube like the ones you see at a bank drive-thru, never to return.
True, these companies employ many local people; they often use local real estate agents and contractors; they pay property taxes; shoppers stay in our hotels; and manager salaries are sufficient to make a good living. For all these reasons, retail is good up to a point. For rank and file workers, however, a retail paycheck with few benefits does not cut it. It is hard to raise a family working double shifts at Target, for example.
Moreover, when evaluating any type of spending, economists often refer to the “multiplier effect” of how much additional economic activity is generated through each dollar that is spent. One dollar of spending at a national retailer is unlikely to have a very great multiplier because much of that dollar flows to the corporation’s bottom line out of state. On the other hand, a dollar spent at a local store or restaurant with locally sourced products might have a multiplier many times greater, as this dollar is likely to be spent again and again within the community.
Growth in retail might look and feel good, but without corresponding growth in other economic areas it could permanently undermine us. The signs of trouble are already there. The Bangor metro area has an unemployment rate of 6.6 percent, which is better than the statewide unemployment rate of 6.9 percent and better than the national unemployment rate of 7.5 percent. At the same time, the median household income in Bangor is about $37,700, which is $10,200 less than the state average and $15,000 less than the national average, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. We have jobs, but they are not paying enough.
The No. 1 thing we can do to reverse the trend is make a collective effort to shop locally. We need those dollars to bounce around our region instead of being sucked away. Beyond that, from an economic development perspective, we need to focus on our comparative advantages: What makes us special and how can we build upon this?
One of best advantages of living here is the quality of life and work-life balance. We need to more aggressively market ourselves as a great place to live. We are a short hop from Acadia National Park, Baxter State Park and the Moosehead region; there is clean water in the tap; our communities are generally safe and peaceful places to live and raise a family; there are plenty of high-quality health care options; and we Mainers are generally neighborly people.
We are also home to some wonderful educational institutions. As our manufacturing base evolves through changing technologies, the best 21st century jobs are going to come out of the innovative and entrepreneurial activities taking place at these schools. Some of the most successful economic development in the country today is done through collaborative efforts between local government and colleges and universities. Will the greater Bangor region become the next Palo Alto? Probably not, but we can be a technology and innovation hub for the state of Maine by collaborating with the University of Maine, Husson University, Eastern Maine Community College, Beal College and others.
This workforce development can and should begin even before college. Bangor High School’s STEM Academy already shows promise with a win in the Maine State Science Fair and a number of students engaging in research projects with University of Maine professors. To best prepare our young people for careers in a variety of industries and to generate the kind of economic activity our region so desperately needs, we should go one step further by partnering education in science and math with lessons in entrepreneurship and innovation. By encouraging students to start their own businesses while still in school, we can not only ensure they have a job upon graduation but that the job will be here at home.
Most of all, we need to get past the collective attitude that Maine is the end of the line. We need to affirm in ourselves a more positive attitude that this is one of the best places in the country to live, work, raise a family and start a business, and we need to share this enthusiasm with other Mainers and non-Mainers alike. We should roll out the red carpet for anyone who wants to start or grow a business here and do absolutely everything we can to help them to be successful.
Over the last 30 years, our jobs, our young people, and our dollars have all been flowing out of the state. It is time to bring them home.
Ben Sprague is a Bangor city councilor.