ALEX STEED

How ‘buying stuff made in Maine’ became cool

Posted March 23, 2017, at 5:51 p.m.

I was fortunate to attend the recent annual New England Made trade show. From specialty food makers to fine jewelry, it was a pleasure seeing so many Maine craftspeople who have and are growing national and international customer bases.

While walking the floor, I heard an elder attendee say: “You know, when I was a kid, buying stuff made in Maine wasn’t the cool thing to do.”

I laughed to myself because it so perfectly fit the old “when I was a kid” cliche and it resonated with my experience. When I was a kid in western Maine, I never imagined we’d become a specialty beer capital or be known for well-crafted items beyond the iconic Bean boot (which I’m wearing as I type this). But thanks to the perseverance of many intersecting efforts, from those of the merchants themselves to groups such as the Maine Brewers Guild and Portland Buy Local and events including Maine Startup and Create week, the appetite for the kinds of quality manufactured products Maine is increasingly known for producing has grown both in and outside of the state.

One common thread shared by people of all political persuasions is a feeling of abandonment by the corporate conglomerates that appear to bear little burden during times of economic hardship. There are, of course, different takes on how to address this at the policy level.

Workers see little by way of gains in productivity. Corporations appear to be the only parts of the market that are privatized while the burdens of debt and market failures are disproportionately carried by everyday people.

This has long been one of the reasons I have eagerly been a cheerleader for this growth in local production and renewed approaches to manufacturing. The more we can spend locally — we now know more broadly than ever before — the more money is kept local, by way of regional economy and tax dollars, and the more is kept in working-class pockets.

This heartening growth in economic capacity does not apply exclusively to manufacturers. Along with the organization that manages Maine Startup and Create Week, Live + Work, Maine, and a number of other innovation-focused businesses, I am about to bus to Boston to sing the praises of living and working here in the state. The trip is meant to reach Maine-curious employees, companies and future startups and to convince them that not only is bringing their ventures and skills to Maine possible, it is for many a scenario that is optimal for both professional success and personal happiness.

Maine is “open for business” in a way that goes beyond partisan sloganeering. It is a place that is enjoyable to both work and live in, and, as we collectively look at how to restore economic conundrums and deficiencies created by the depletion of 20th century industries, we’re open to trying new approaches to achieve prosperity.

These are some of the reasons I am especially critical of Gov. Paul LePage and some Republican policies, especially the regressive, reactionary image he has appeared insistent on perpetuating. By way of the hard work of many, from the manufacturers and merchants on up, Maine has — devoid of his distractions — begun to solidify a sterling image of Maine as a focus for economic and innovative opportunity.

It has been his outbursts that have marred the state’s otherwise attractive image to those who might want to build something worthwhile here. It had been his insistence upon not taking seriously the severity of the public health crisis of opiate addiction that has done a disservice to Maine’s reputation as a state that invests in the health of its overall workforce.

And these are the reasons I expect workplaces to provide generous compensation and positive treatment of their work forces, because talent requires competitive compensation and good work deserves an equitable return. If we are going to build a strong and cooperative economy, it can’t be accomplished exclusively by rewarding disproportionately those at its top. Everyone who makes economic growth possible should be compensated competitively.

Being “pro business” and in favor of development that makes life better for us all, it turns out, are two different things. It is with my eye on our collective growth and economic success, and excitement for seeing its fruits ripen, that I consider myself progressive — which, contrary to what corporate subsidized PR firms would prefer for you to believe, isn’t inherently contradictory to economic growth. I am excited for any and all opportunity that brings us all ahead.

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was a teenager. He’s an owner-partner of a Portland-based content production company and lives with his family, dogs and garden in Cornish.

 

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