Nearly a decade ago, the report “Charting Maine’s Future” challenged the conventional wisdom that Maine is a rural state. “A closer look reveals that Maine is quite ‘suburban,’” read the report, put together by the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program in 2006.
Also nearly a decade ago, economists Charlie Colgan and Richard Barringer highlighted these economic realities in a policy paper:
— In 1969, nearly a third of all Maine jobs were in manufacturing; by 2004, that figure had dropped to one in 10.
— In 1969, the natural resource-based and textile, apparel and shoe industries accounted for one in four jobs; by 2004, they accounted for one in 19.
What do these transformations have in common?
They point to the increasing importance of cities to Maine’s economy. And in the decade since these two reports’ publication, cities and the metropolitan areas centered around them have only become more vital. Indeed, even in a state such as Maine known for its rural nature, cities are the way of the future.
In 1960, Maine was home to only one metropolitan area — a federally defined area of at least 50,000 people that revolves around a core city for jobs and services — that comprised only five Portland-area communities. Today, Maine has three metropolitan regions and two micropolitan regions (areas of at least 10,000 people with a smaller city or two at their core). In addition, much of southern York County belongs to the Portsmouth-Dover-Rochester metro area centered in New Hampshire.
The evolution of Maine’s metro regions (and micropolitan regions — the Augusta-Waterville and Rockland areas) doesn’t necessarily highlight explosive population growth in Maine’s largest cities — Portland, Lewiston and Bangor. Rather, it points to the reality that those who live around those cities are more likely today to commute to those cities for work and depend on them for key services.
The decline of manufacturing and natural-resource industries — largely located in rural areas — as the dominant job creators and the rise of service jobs (which tend to be more urban) go hand in hand with this geographic transformation.
Indeed, Maine’s metro areas have continued to grow as a portion of the state’s economy — particularly the Portland area, which has accounted for more than half of Maine’s gross domestic product since 2010. Altogether, the Bangor, Lewiston and Portland areas accounted for 68.7 percent of Maine’s economy in 2013, up from 66.6 percent in 2001, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.
While it’s increasingly clear that Maine is little without its cities, those cities — particularly Portland — still face a political and cultural environment that largely favors Maine’s rural areas. State economic development policies and education and transportation funding models have largely reflected this rural favoritism. In politics, Gov. Paul LePage’s administration this year invested substantial political capital in characterizing Portland as a “welfare outlier” in order to justify a proposal to rework the state’s General Assistance reimbursement formula in a way that would have favored Maine’s smaller towns over its largest cities.
Meanwhile, Maine owes any population growth it has experienced over the past few years to the Portland area. The Portland area’s growth between 2010 and 2014 (by almost 10,000 residents) offset population declines elsewhere in Maine (whose total population increased by fewer than 2,000), according to Census data.
This November, voters in Maine’s two largest cities — Portland and Lewiston — will elect mayors.
Those mayors won’t only lead city council meetings. They’ll represent the interests of their cities to state government in Augusta and to the broader public. Maine’s cities need strong advocates who can make the case they are not outliers to the rest of the state. They are, in fact, key components and drivers of the state’s economy and culture; they are the areas where the innovation key to the state’s future economic growth is most likely to happen; and they are the areas most likely to host the state’s future population growth.
Maine’s rural character might distinguish it from other states. But its urban areas will more likely than not drive its growth. Those urban areas need strong advocates who can make the case for policies that help it along.