Towns across rural Maine have been losing their people and jobs for years as digital advancements lowered demand for paper manufacturing and technological advancements reduced the need for workers in rural industries such as agriculture and logging.
The trend of out-migration and death will continue, according to the state’s projections. In total, there will likely be nearly 21,000 fewer people in the counties along Maine’s rural rim by 2034 — akin to losing more than everyone in Piscataquis County or the entire town of Brunswick.
Given that the odds of reversing these kinds of long-term demographic trends are “limited at best,” as the Carsey Institute put it in a 2006 report, the BDN’s Maine Focus team examined the choices that communities are making — or not making — about their future as part of a series called Rural Edges.
Here are six takeaways about those communities’ options:
Talk about it. Communities can ease the pain of a dwindling population and rising property tax burdens by taking specific steps, such as regionalizing government services or ensuring businesses know about available, innovative financing methods to ensure a business’ survival if a new buyer can’t be found. But, while getting more efficient can help in the short term, it’s not likely to stop the larger, underlying trend.
Many communities may find they need to examine their population projections and deliberately decide what they want to do about them. First, could there be a good reason for growth — or a way to at least halt decline? For example, a town might be able to offer a deal on housing for professors and students who attend a local college, to become a desired bedroom community.
If there’s no way to draw people, towns can decide to simply focus on improving the quality of life for their current residents, said Randolph Cantrell, a rural sociologist with the Rural Futures Institute and the University of Nebraska Extension.
They can do that in whatever way residents prefer — perhaps by better connecting residents to amenities, such as by arranging group transportation to events or services in the closest city. Or, if the community is small enough, perhaps there’s an answer in deorganization, which requires residents to give up local decision-making power and sell off their community’s property — in exchange for lower property taxes.
The most important thing is that community members are honest about their situation and make decisions that serve their long-term interests. Having those community conversations can be difficult, but having them is key — as is being open to a future that doesn’t involve growth.
Tourism can be a stepping stone. There will likely be a few select regions in rural Maine that could draw more tourists — who may one day become residents able to sustain schools and local businesses, or owners of vacation homes.
Places will make decisions differently depending on their economic, cultural and environmental offerings. But the Moosehead Lake region in particular offers an example of how businesses, philanthropists and governments can work together to become a premier wilderness destination.
“What you have here is … worth a trip from anywhere in the United States, Canada or even Europe,” said consultant Roger Brooks during a community assessment presentation in Greenville in October 2014. “You may not realize it, but it is that good.”
Even with Moosehead Lake and the mountains surrounding it offering plentiful hiking, there are many concrete steps local leaders must continue to take before they can back up marketing that advertises the region as “America’s Crown Jewel.” These are steps other regions can learn from.
The Moosehead Lake region’s development is guided by a master plan and lots of business support. It’s also possible because thousands of acres of forest around the lake have been permanently conserved, providing a helpful level of certainty in planning efforts.
Local leaders have started to take a number of small steps aimed at developing the Moosehead Lake region into a premier tourist destination. They’ve started to install wayfinding signs, begun to beautify downtown Greenville, raised money for benches and launched a hiking challenge that encourages people to post about their accomplishments on Instagram.
And they’re eyeing larger efforts for the future: the potential construction of a downtown pavilion, revitalization of the local ski resort, and, after years of rezoning, possibly a resort or two.
Mostly the work is possible because residents in the area — the town of Greenville and the small towns and unorganized townships around it — agreed on what they wanted their region to be, worked together and let their local champions take charge, rather than waiting for continued decline or unlikely help from the outside.
Other areas in Maine with the right mix of natural attractions may find they can also build off their natural amenities. Between 1970 and 2000, population growth in the nation’s 327 rural counties most dependent on recreation and tourism was more than double the population growth in nonmetropolitan counties overall.
Towns could benefit from an option to choose newcomers. Canadian communities have an option their rural Maine counterparts do not have: inviting refugee families to settle in their towns.
Under Canada’s private sponsorship program, individual communities can choose to invite refugee families, meaning they front all or some of the initial living expenses and provide practical support to the family, such as giving them rides, setting medical appointments and enrolling the children in school. The benefits come over the long term, as families put down roots, send their children to local schools, buy homes, pay taxes and start businesses.
Compared with government-sponsored refugees, privately sponsored refugees in Canada are more likely to be employed, have higher salaries and rely less on government benefits for at least their first 10 years in the country, according to a recent Canadian government review of its resettlement programs. That’s because the social ties that sponsors provide help refugees integrate faster and more deeply.
In the U.S., the authority to define refugee resettlement policy rests solely with the federal government, so towns with declining populations — that immigrants often helped build more than a century ago — now find they have no clear way of drawing newcomers.
Some people in Maine, such as a group of education, faith and business leaders in Aroostook County, are trying to draw refugees in southern Maine to live up north, but there’s no guarantee their efforts will be fruitful.
It would require a change at the federal level, or one of Congress, to allow private sponsorship in the U.S. — a change that seems unlikely as President Donald Trump institutes a freeze on refugee resettlement and limits resettlement of refugees from a number of countries.
Leaders need to get more hands on. As rural places continue to lose people and jobs, local leaders, especially those running school districts, will likely find an increased need to dig deeper into the perspectives of their residents who have fewer resources — to better listen to and understand their fears, include them in community work and respect their concerns, and know how they reason through their decisions.
People who face dwindling resources are more likely to make decisions that focus on the short term, according to research. A history of exclusion can cause people with lower incomes to distrust government organizations and institutions seen as mainstream. And those with lower incomes tend to value even more their community and personal networks, which have helped them survive.
The circumstances make it all the more important for school principals, superintendents and school board members to communicate: set up meetings, talk to municipal leaders in person, make sure conversations involve a wide range of people and respect people’s ideas about how to achieve shared goals.
Ensure people can eat. As rural areas of Maine continue to lose employers and people, it stands to reason that the people who remain will have a harder time finding enough to eat.
The prevalence of food insecurity — which is when people don’t have access at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life — is greater in rural areas than cities or suburbs, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And it has been on the rise in Maine in recent years, even as it’s dropped nationwide.
The nation’s largest program to combat hunger is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly referred to as food stamps. In November, Somerset County had the greatest percentage of its people on food stamps, at 21 percent, followed by Washington County, at 20 percent, according to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.
Gov. Paul LePage’s administration has rolled back the federally funded assistance program in recent years, causing thousands of adults to lose SNAP. Starting in October 2014, the administration limited non-disabled people between ages 18 and 49, without dependent children, to three months of SNAP benefits in every three-year period. They can continue receiving benefits if they work at least 80 hours per month, participate in education or training, or volunteer.
The problem is that there are many places around the state — called Labor Surplus Areas by the U.S. Department of Labor — where the average unemployment rate over the past two years is at least 20 percent higher than the national rate, making it difficult for people to fulfill the SNAP work requirements.
The 177 towns and unorganized townships that qualify as Labor Surplus Areas are largely in rural western, northern and Down East Maine. You can see them here.
Under federal law, the state could restore SNAP benefits at no direct cost to the state, almost exclusively to people in struggling, rural areas, by seeking permission from the federal government to lift the three-month time limit only in these Labor Surplus Areas.
Businesses need workers, and workers need support. Maine may not have a private sponsorship program for refugees, but that doesn’t mean refugees won’t be resettled to small towns far from the hubs of Portland and Lewiston. As employers such as nursing homes struggle to fill vacancies, they have turned to Catholic Charities, the agency that resettles refugees in Maine, to find refugees to hire.
On paper, the arrangement may seem ideal: The business gets employees, and refugees get a new home and jobs. But the reality can be trickier as language and cultural barriers prevent clear communication, leaving new refugees feeling grateful but at the same time trapped and alone.
After chronicling the experience of the first refugee family to be resettled in small-town Maine, the BDN learned the Kaluta family needed more active assistance from a Catholic Charities caseworker to understand their new surroundings in Thomaston, help learning to drive since there is no reliable public transportation, previously arranged contacts with local faith and community groups to ensure they felt welcomed, and more deliberate help learning English.
Already one member of the family has left Thomaston to live in Portland where he has more job options, a greater chance of making friends and access to public transportation. If the other family members follow, the Kalutas may earn the distinction of being not only the first — but also the last — refugee family to ever be resettled in small-town Maine. Catholic Charities and other employers can learn from the Kalutas’ experience and adapt their support for future families.
Maine Focus is a journalism and community engagement initiative at the Bangor Daily News. Do you have an issue of major importance you’d like to see covered? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sign up for our newsletter here to be alerted when we publish new stories.