June 20, 2019
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Sowing the seeds of Maine’s economy

It is summer in Maine, and driving around the state we can see farmers working in their fields, planting their crops. American author George Woodbury once observed: “No farmer ever plowed a field by turning it over in his mind.” In one short sentence Woodbury drew the precise, clear line between thinking and doing.

Of course a plan needs to be developed for the field — what crops should be planted, what rotation should be done, what fertilizer should be used and when it should be applied. But plans have no value unless they are implemented, hence the farmer working every day in the field.

All of the plans and all of the writing about the economy of the state and moving Maine forward have no impact unless they are accompanied by concrete action to convert those plans into reality.

The time for specific, concrete actions to change the economic direction of Maine is now.

Of course action should be preceded by a thoughtfully developed plan. What exactly is the economic development plan for the state of Maine for the next three to five years? Where has it been publicized? What hearings or meetings have been held and who has been involved in its development? Who is responsible for implementing this plan and what are the measurable objectives and goals by which this plan is to be evaluated?

Better yet, what should they be?

Maine is at a turning point in its history. The businesses that have driven our economy for the last 150 years are still the same: agriculture, forestry and fishing — except that over time their economic size and impact has been greatly reduced. The “newer” industries driving the state are tourism and retirement — but these industries do not offer substantial career paths for our children nor do they provide significant salaries. As a consequence we find that our economic performance has been in decline, our children are leaving the state for better career opportunities, income from all taxes are being squeezed and increased pressures are being placed on the state’s budget. Time is running out for us to make changes.

So, what can be done? Our universities are already pursuing innovative and creative approaches to addressing serious national economic problems — wind, solar and tidal power, for example — and they will yield results, but unfortunately not in the short term (three to five years). Our universities are also pursuing work with entrepreneurs and small businesses to help with job creation throughout the state. But all of this is simply not enough to improve the economic performance and condition of the state.

We need to focus our efforts on the attraction and retention of new businesses to the state that will diversify our economic base, provide career opportunities for our children and broaden our tax base. Virtually everyone agrees on these broad goals, but we have not done well in achieving them. Why not?  One reasonable explanation is that we have not pursued a well-crafted plan. If we look at our economic efforts over time it appears to be more of an ad hoc approach rather than one based on a clear vision of where we want to be. What we need then is a clearly understood, well-developed plan that we can use as a basis for action.

So what are the next reasonable steps that we should take? We need, as a state, to decide what businesses we want to attract to the state and why. But before we make those choices, we need to be clear about those aspects of the state that can serve to attract businesses and equally as clear about those aspects of the state that serve to discourage investment. Once we have identified the positive and negative aspects — including infrastructure, legislation, regulation and other issues — a campaign can be developed for the governor and the director of the Department of Economic and Community Development to begin “telling the story” to organizations and corporations not only in the United States but also internationally. However, it is crucial to develop a picture of the state, good and bad, before we can identify those corporations that we want to attract to the state.

This plan should be developed with the involvement of a broad group of people from throughout the state, such as politicians, business people and academics, to encourage the sharing of ideas and approaches to bring businesses to the state of Maine. Then the governor, the Legislature and the director of DECD can pursue, on an ongoing basis, the attraction of new businesses that we want to Maine.

Farmers work the land for years, rotating crops, fertilizing when necessary, leaving the field alone to recover — but the crucial aspect of our farmers is that they work in a sustained, focused manner for years to achieve results. In order to move the state forward economically, we also need to be as focused as a farmer — we need a sustained, focused effort by our leadership to improve the state. We need a plan, but more importantly we need sustained action to move the state forward economically.

The time is now.

John F. Mahon holds the John M. Murphy Chair in International Business Policy and Strategy and is a professor of management at the Maine Business School, University of Maine. He has served as dean of the College of Business, Public Policy and Health and as provost, ad interim at the University of Maine.

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