Sen. Angus King is proposing two competitive grant funds aimed specifically at rural and economically distressed areas to spur regions in need of an economic boost to generate revitalization plans, then act on them.
King made the announcement Monday in western Maine at Region 9 School of Applied Technology in Mexico. He said he’s circulating the idea now to solicit feedback, with the intention of formally proposing legislation in the coming weeks.
“Competitive grants are a good way to reward creativity,” King said. “Part of what I think the federal government can do is to seed innovation — not necessarily operation, but innovation. That’s why the planning is so important.”
“If you fail to plan, you’re planning to fail,” he added, quoting an adage credited to Benjamin Franklin.
King’s legislation would set up two kinds of federally funded competitive grants for rural revitalization — two-year planning grants that local organizations or collaboratives could apply for and use to set the stage for later initiatives; and implementation grants that the same organizations would be eligible for to fund the implementation of those initiatives.
Applicants would have to put forward locally raised money or other resources to match the federal investment.
The implementation grants could cover regional investments in career and technical education, broadband internet access, services such as child care and addiction treatment that enable low-income people to work, apprenticeships and business incubators, according to a news release from King’s office.
The grants could cover other expenses, King said, depending on what regions propose.
“The president’s talking about creating jobs and adding to the economy, and it seems to me this is exactly the kind of investment we have to make,” King said. “Investing in people is the same as investing in roads, bridges and factories. You’ve got to invest in people in order to make those things run.”
If current trends hold, Maine’s rural regions are destined for a future in which communities will continue to shrink, and some might cease to exist as municipalities. Ninety-three percent of communities with fewer than 2,500 people in Maine’s six rural rim counties — Oxford, Franklin, Somerset, Piscataquis, Aroostook and Washington — are projected to lose population between 2014 and 2034, according to state demographic projections compiled by the BDN’s Maine Focus team as part of a fall 2016 series focused on rural Maine’s future.
For those shrinking communities, and for those seeking a revival, planning for the future hasn’t always come naturally.
“Planning on a larger basis has always been an unnatural act, as has serious collaboration,” Richard Barringer, a former state conservation commissioner and state planning director who served in the administrations of three Maine governors, told the BDN last fall.
But there are exceptions.
The Moosehead Lake region, highlighted in the BDN’s series, is in the midst of a long-term process of planning for a future as a premier, wilderness tourism destination. With the help of philanthropic support and the leadership of a local, business-led organization, the area is envisioning its future and gradually making investments to improve the area’s tourist infrastructure.
King’s legislation follows the January release of a report from a federal economic development assessment that visited Maine last year at the request of King, Sen. Susan Collins and Rep. Bruce Poliquin.
“The key for me is, we can’t just sit by and watch the rural economy decline,” King said. “We’ve got to take some action, and that’s why we’re doing this.”