For many residents, Maine’s rural nature is what they love about the state. There is a pride in coming from a small town, where you can’t go to a restaurant without seeing someone you know. The sense of community — a teacher who knits mittens for each of her students, a selectman who gives a eulogy at residents’ funerals because he knew them so well, a neighbor who shares a wood splitter — is what makes Maine strong.
At the same time, Maine residents feel the effects of a slow economy every day, whether it’s in the wages they earn, the job advancement options open to them or the distance they have to drive to the store. Because of location and lack of employment diversity, the economies of some towns, especially mill towns, get hit harder than others. The layoff of 200 people from Lincoln Paper and Tissue LLC in December was one massive blow in a long stream of hardship for workers at Maine mills that will continue to have ripple effects across the region.
Leaders of local government can continue with business as usual. They can try to land a big employer — like Madison did with tomato-grower Backyard Farms — that will bring them a couple hundred more jobs. They can offer economic incentives. They can grasp at whatever comes their way.
Doing so doesn’t preclude them from also taking specific steps to improve upon projects and programs already in place and grow their local populations, person by person. The grassroots approach, at least, has the benefit of being practical and doable.
That’s why it’s encouraging to see Lincoln Town Manager William Lawrence’s pursuit of initiatives to grow the local economy, draw young people and make the town a more attractive place in which families can reside. Like Bangor City Council Chairman Ben Sprague’s ideas to grow Bangor, Lawrence’s plan is an attempt to change the economic conditions about which many others seem content to only complain.
Council members approved the following ideas: get feedback from youth about what would keep them in the area; encourage participation in local government; grow use of social media; explore recruiting residents and businesses from outside Maine; hold workshops about how to start a business; create a video series about why to live and work in Lincoln and post it to the town’s website; expand exercise trail systems; grow the number of festivals, events and shows; and widen West Broadway to draw more businesses there.
Some critics will claim that Lincoln must first have available jobs to attract residents. While it would certainly help, the greater Katahdin region doesn’t have that luxury of waiting until there are more jobs. Job creation and population growth must go hand in hand, and Lawrence’s initiatives take that fact into consideration. The worst that can happen is the ideas don’t have an impact, and the declining population trend continues. But pursuing a plan and falling short is a far better option than doing nothing.
Lawrence’s ideas show commitment to fix a problem and ownership of a place many call home. Just as maintaining a sense of community requires small acts of generosity and kindness by many people, reviving an economy takes the same. Build on Lawrence’s initiatives with your own.