BANGOR, Maine — The problem isn’t that Maine’s population is too old, there just aren’t enough young people, a panel made up of local business and government leaders said Wednesday during a Bangor Chamber of Commerce breakfast.
Maine, with its oft-cited status as the state with the oldest median age in the union, needs to increase its crop of young residents in order to keep up with the growing tide of retiring baby boomers, the leaders agreed.
AARP last year dubbed Bangor as the best place in the country to retire on $30,000 a year, in part because of its cultural offerings, housing affordability, low-cost entertainment and dining.
Those are the same things that young people want, Bangor City Council Chairman Ben Sprague said.
“The common thread in all of this is quality of life,” he added.
That’s something that another panelist, Ann Homola, director of physician recruitment for Eastern Maine Medical Center, stresses in her daily work. Her job is to convince physicians, some of whom are young or have young families, to move to the Bangor area, often leaving their jobs in larger cities.
“You can still get free parking at the curb, I mean, how many cities still offer that?” she said.
During the past decade, much has been said about Maine’s “brain drain,” the idea that young people leave the state after high school or college in droves, never to return.
Some have cast doubt on the theory in more recent years, as more people who left for college or to start careers return to start families, and others believe the shortage of young people has more to do with baby boomers having fewer children than their parents.
The number of 20- to 34-year-olds in Maine has declined 20 percent from two decades ago, economist and public policy professor Charles Colgan said during a chamber breakfast in December.
His forecasts project that the state needs its population to grow by about 2,500 per year to meet employment needs in 2017. In recent years, it has been increasing by an average of just 800. Because deaths are exceeding births in many parts of the state, Colgan said, all of that growth will need to come from people moving to Maine.
“Sooner or later, it’s going to hit that we just don’t have enough people,” he added.
Monday’s breakfast focused on how to attract those people, especially young entrepreneurs and workers to fill the roles of retirees.
That involves touting resources like concerts, theaters, restaurants, universities, mountains and streams available in a community that’s small enough to allow people to make personal connections with policy makers and organization leaders, panelists said.
Bangor has come a long way in the 21st Century, but looking back won’t help continue that momentum, said Matt McLaughlin, vice chairman of FUSION:Bangor, a networking group for young professionals in the area.
“I think there’s a lot more we could be doing as a state and region to tout our resources,” he said, citing his generation’s appreciation of shopping local, community focus and entrepreneurial spirit. “I would want to be at a Verve or a Bagel Central over a Starbucks any day because they’re part of our community.”
Organizations and municipalities in the greater Bangor area need to start “breaking down silos,” and cooperating to promote the state as a great place to live, work and raise a family, panelists argued.
Homola said that improving public transportation will be vital to courting more people to Bangor, as many of those people could come from large cities where they aren’t used to having to drive everywhere.
Sprague said the state needs leadership that will “reflect and affirm a positive state brand,” arguing that there’s too much negativity about the state and its people coming from Augusta.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter @nmccrea213.