Why some bright young people leave Bangor and what might bring them back

Ben Sprague, a 2002 Bangor High School graduate and Bangor City Councilor, is one of 26 students that year to receive the Superintendent's Award. Today, he is the only one of those recipients living in Bangor and one of just two or three living in Maine. He says he's worried about young people leaving Bangor and would like to see more of them return to the Queen City to work and raise families.
Ben Sprague, a 2002 Bangor High School graduate and Bangor City Councilor, is one of 26 students that year to receive the Superintendent's Award. Today, he is the only one of those recipients living in Bangor and one of just two or three living in Maine. He says he's worried about young people leaving Bangor and would like to see more of them return to the Queen City to work and raise families. Buy Photo
Posted June 15, 2013, at 11:23 a.m.
Last modified June 15, 2013, at 4:52 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Talented young people leave Bangor for many reasons — school, work, better paycheck, love, religion.

In 2002, Bangor’s then-superintendent of schools recognized the 26 best and brightest graduating students with the Superintendent’s Academic Excellence Award, now an 18-year-old tradition. The designation rewards students who maintain a 4.0 GPA in eight or more honors or advanced placement courses, and typically is earned by 5-10 percent of the graduating class.

Of those 26 students, just one, City Councilor Ben Sprague, lives in Bangor today. The rest are spread across the globe doing remarkable things, but Sprague wishes more of them were doing those things here.

There are common threads in each of their stories. All but one went to an out-of-state college or university. In the decade since graduating high school, they’ve started careers and lives outside of Maine. The bulk of them love the Queen City and value the education they received in its schools.

But they said they can’t fulfill their dreams and aspirations here. They can’t find the high-paying jobs they’d like. Bangor doesn’t have the right industries for them.

And none said they have immediate plans to bring their skills back to Bangor right now.

Sprague often cites in discussions about Bangor’s future his estimate that one-in-seven members of his high school class of 330 still lives in Bangor as evidence that too many talented young people are leaving to start their careers and family lives elsewhere. He believes the issue has reached “crisis” levels.

“If we don’t reverse this trend of people leaving and not coming back, we’ll be in a demographic winter … if we’re not there already,” he said.

Even Sprague left the city for nearly a decade to go to school and work in Boston before returning in 2011 with his wife, another Maine native who left the state for school.

“I just love the people, I love the quality of life, the pace of life,” Sprague said when asked why he returned. Living in Massachusetts made him appreciate Maine’s qualities more. Also, he said he can do financial planning anywhere, which isn’t the case with some jobs his classmates took.

None of this is to say that Bangor doesn’t have impressive young entrepreneurs.

Bangor school Superintendent Betsy Webb, Sprague and several members of the 2002 Superintendent’s Award class each listed former Bangor High School students who have stayed close to home or returned to do big things.

Cary Weston served as chairman of the City Council and became partner at Sutherland Weston, a successful Bangor marketing firm. Timothy Lo is executive director of KahBang, an annual music, art and film festival. Still others have stayed in the area to become doctors, lawyers, realtors and educators.

Weston was founding chair when the group Fusion was formed in 2004 to counter the “brain drain,” Weston said Monday. Fusion, modeled after an organization in Saint John, New Brunswick, is geared to 19-40-year-olds and aims to keep career-oriented men and women engaged in their communities and urge collaboration.

Like Sprague, he spent several years away from Bangor before returning.

“The things that you thought were lame end up bringing you back in the end,” Weston said.

“Energy begets energy,” Weston said. In order to attract and retain young people to move to and contribute to the region, the city needs offerings that will inspire “enthusiasm.”

Weston said the Bangor City Council has done a good job in recent years of “getting out of the way,” and allowing developments that will draw eyes to the Queen City. He used Waterfront Concerts as an example.

Alex Gray, an Old Town High School graduate, created the concerts series, which draws tens of thousands of revelers to the Bangor Waterfront each summer and has a $30 million impact on the local economy, according to a recent University of Maine study. He’s a prime example of someone who stuck around and pushed to improve the region, Webb and Sprague said.

Gray said he stayed in the Bangor area because he saw an opportunity that would boost the region, in spite of the fact that he heard from many people that a large-scale concert series in Bangor wouldn’t be viable.

“We need to figure out how to make an environment in this region that makes people want to be here,” he said.

Weston and Gray were among a group of local professionals that spoke to Bangor High School seniors last fall, urging them to travel and get their education, but to return to Bangor to settle down after experiencing the world outside of Maine.

“We want to provide each student with a level of academic excellence so that they have as many options available to them when they graduate as possible,” Webb said. “Whether that’s college-ready, whether that’s going into the military, whether that’s going into the workforce. I think we all know that the world is shrinking, people are moving more.”

Webb said the school district doesn’t keep data on where its students go to find employment in the years following their graduation, so it’s hard to say whether the exodus seen among 2002’s senior crop of students is a trend.

“It’s not that all the successful people have left, it’s just that if we had some of these people in Bangor, it would make such a positive difference in our economy,” Sprague said.

But Sprague acknowledged that Bangor “just isn’t for some people.”

“If you want to live in downtown Manhattan, it’s just part of who you are. You’re going to leave [Bangor] and might never come back,” Sprague said.

James Breece, a professor of economics at the University of Maine, has spent time studying the change in Maine demographics. According to U.S. Census data, Maine’s population of infants to 14-year-olds dropped by 9.5 percent from 2000 to 2010. That is a total loss of more than 23,000 kids.

“This is all coupled with the ‘brain drain,’” Breece said. “There’s just fewer students, and that’s going to impact what we can do as an economy.”

“This will have implications on the state budget for decades,” Breece said. “We’ll have structural deficits for awhile, and certain areas of Maine, especially in the North, will struggle to find employees.”

Most Maine high school graduates who stay in Maine for college end up working in the state after graduation, according to a decade of “Life after UMaine” surveys conducted at the University of Maine. Those annual surveys typically found that 60-70 percent of students found employment in the year after graduation. Of those students who found employment, the ones from Maine, rather than out of state, were far more likely to have found employment in Maine. Between 70 and 80 percent of Maine high school graduates who earned degrees at UMaine found employment in the state, whereas just 20-30 percent of out-of-state students stayed in Maine after earning their degrees.

“Most students do want to stay in the State of Maine, and they do want to work, but they need to go where there are jobs and it makes financial sense to them,” Breece said.

A recent study by University of Southern Maine researchers found that 30 percent of 2010 Maine high school graduates who went on to college attended an out-of-state school. About one-third attended a University of Maine System campus and nearly one-fourth went to a community college.

That same study found that students who attended out-of-state schools tended to have slightly higher achievement scores on the SAT and in high school grade point average.

“It doesn’t matter what school you go to, what matters is what you do when you get there,” Webb said.

While the state does lose some students after high school graduation, there’s even some advantage to that, Breece said. People who grew up in Maine will be talking about their hometowns and spreading news about things that are happening there, putting Maine communities on the radar in places where people otherwise might not pay attention, he said.

Sprague said he has some ideas on how to make Bangor more attractive for people looking to start careers or families.

He’d like to see the state undertake a new marketing and branding campaign, spreading good news about the state to end what he called a “destructive cycle of self-loathing,” caused by only talking about the state’s shortcomings.

The state should build a comprehensive asset-based economic development plan and create jobs around things the state already does, such as manufacturing, tourism, research and development, he said. Bangor needs to take advantage of its creative economy.

So while many high school graduates leave for school and stay in other states because of job opportunities, employment is only part of the picture, according to Sprague.

“People also want to live in a stimulating environment with things to do,” Sprague said, citing Waterfront Concerts and the American Folk Festival as examples of success in Bangor. “We have come a long way in the past 10 years, especially in Bangor, but we still have a long way to go.”

Gray said wanting to create that environment is part of the reason he started Waterfront Concerts, which is a good step toward throwing the claim that there’s nothing to do in Bangor out the window.

Sprague and Gray said the state might want to explore tax incentives as a way of convincing more young people to move to Maine, in much the same way the state and municipalities provide incentives to businesses. Incentives could even come in the form of forgiveness of student loans, he said. The state already has an Opportunity Maine tax credit, which reimburses Maine workers for student loan payments for those who earn a degree at a Maine school and continue to live and work here after graduation.

“I don’t like the idea of ‘brain drain’ because it implies that all the smart people got up and left,” Sprague said. “There are a lot of young professionals doing incredible things in Maine right now. That being said, the economic impact of all these other folks leaving is impossible to ignore.”

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