BANGOR, Maine — The City Council chairman wants more people living and working in Bangor, and he has 38 ideas for how to make that happen.
Ben Sprague is fond of quoting a legendary statesman who said Maine was losing too many young people to opportunities outside their home state.
“Nothing is more obvious than that Maine has not developed her resources fast and far enough to afford a field for the vigorous and enterprising spirit of her sons, and hence they go forth, drawn by more inviting prospects abroad, and impelled perhaps by that restless energy of soul which has made the world what it is. The world is doubtless a gainer by this diffusion of energy and intelligence: but it is doubtful whether the state can longer afford to be a mere nursery for the missionaries of civilization.”
If that quote sounds a bit grandiose, it’s because it was written 147 years ago by Maine Gov. Joshua Chamberlain. Four years after Chamberlain and his 20th Maine defended Little Round Top from wave after wave of attacks during the battle of Gettysburg, he said these words during his inaugural address. Update the language a bit, and the same could easily be said today, Sprague argues.
“I want people to think of Bangor and be proud of Bangor and recognize it’s on the move,” Sprague said in a recent interview. In order for that to happen, the momentum the city has seen in recent years with the growth of the Waterfront Concerts Series, the opening of the city’s new arena and growth in the city’s downtown need to continue, he said. Entrepreneurs, new families and added industries will be needed to keep that energy going
Population will be a persistent problem for Maine, with the oldest median age (43.5) in the country, if steps aren’t taken, according to economists who have studied Maine population trends.
Sprague cites a 2013 report by state Economist Amanda Rector which projects that Bangor will have a population of 32,978 in 2020 — down slightly from 2010’s count of 33,020. The city has been leaking residents slowly but steadily in recent decades. In 1990, the population of Bangor was about 34,680.
The stakes are big, not just for Bangor but the entire region. Rector projects that just four counties in southern Maine — Androscoggin, Cumberland, Knox and York — will see population increases between 2010 and 2015.
University of Southern Maine economist Charles Colgan has said that Maine needs to keep young people in Maine to live and work, and attract others “from away.” Colgan estimates that Maine needs to attract at least 3,000 new, young residents each year for the next 20 years to sustain a workforce.
To ensure Bangor plays its role in the push, Sprague proposes a series of “action steps,” all 38 of which he’d like to see implemented if possible. Some, should be quick and simple. Others could be more complex or even controversial.
As far as “quick and easy” ideas, Sprague wants the city to create a “how-to” guide for starting a business; expand the number and size of outdoor art projects, similar to the murals and downtown arts efforts that have been popping up; reach out to people who left Bangor and figure out why and what, if anything, might bring them back.
Some of the more involved projects would be launching a branding campaign to promote the city; forming a fresh, cohesive 10-year plan for the waterfront, Main Street and downtown; and providing local property-tax rebates for first-time homebuyers.
Sprague argues that even a small rebate — say $1,000 or $2,000 — would cost the city relatively little, and if it helped 35 new families settle in Bangor, the city could see big benefits and value brought by families who help the community by shopping in stores, attending events and telling other people about their new home.
The individual ideas in Sprague’s report are aimed at either supporting people who want to relocate to Bangor; recruiting business and industry; promoting culture and entertainment; engaging young people and marketing the city. He said he plans to bring some of these ideas to city staff, other councilors and city committees.
He said he’s not yet sure how to track success. If the city sees an uptick in home sales or influx of new business, it’s hard to prove what caused it. “Continual progress” and growth in the city will be key to determining whether the efforts have worked, he said.
There’s a regional component to many of the proposals, a fact Mike Aube of Eastern Maine Development Corp. finds encouraging.
As Bangor sees more business and more residents, communities surrounding the hub see benefits too. Not everyone who works at a Bangor business necessarily would settle in Bangor with their families, for example, Aube said.
Mobilize Eastern Maine, a group under the Eastern Maine Development Corp. umbrella, has been implementing initiatives since 2009 in the hopes of boosting the Greater Bangor Region’s population and decreasing its median age.
One of those efforts is Mobilize Eastern Maine’s Ambassadors program, which links people who are exploring a move to Bangor to work in a certain field with a crop of business professionals and community leaders who will answer their questions about the city. Basically, they work as recruiters in hopes of bringing professionals to the city.
Sprague wants the city to help Mobilize Eastern Maine expand on that program and get more people involved.
In 2008, the population of the region — which Mobilize Eastern Maine defines as communities near the Penobscot River from Bucksport to Old Town — was 108,950, about 35.6 percent of whom were between the ages of 20 and 44. Eastern Maine Development Corp. hoped that by 2015, the region would have a population of more than 116,500, 38 percent of whom are between 20 and 44.
As of 2010, progress had been made, with population reaching 153,849, but just a 2 percent increase in the 20- to 44-year-old population. Eastern Maine Development Corp. is working on more recent numbers, Aube said, but they weren’t yet available.
Aube said he believed Sprague’s ideas were “in-sync” with what Eastern Maine Development Corp. is trying to accomplish in the region and that he expected a lot of collaboration between Eastern Maine Development Corp. and the city as the efforts move forward.
“We’ve got to sharpen the pencil and take on a more transformative agenda,” Aube said.
Sprague said that once the ball is rolling on some of these initiatives, he expects momentum to pick up.
“Positive things beget more positive things,” he said. “With economic growth, there will be more jobs, and with more jobs come more people and the increased energy, economic activity and tax revenue associated with them.”