My wife and I have been coming to northwest Maine for the past 15 years. This past fall, we purchased a camp on Lower Wilson Pond near Greenville. We have come to love the state, particularly the Moosehead Lake region. However, we are seeing trends that seriously threaten the continued economic viability of not only this part of Maine, but for the entire state.
The numbers should be ringing loud alarm bells. Fifty years ago, the class of 1969 of Greenville High School had 54 graduates. This year, the graduating class consists of eight girls and 10 boys. Future numbers are equally foreboding. The superintendent of schools is predicting a further 8 percent decline over the next two years. These losses are not limited to Greenville and Piscataquis County. Aroostook County has seen its population decline by 7 percent since 2010, and, to make matters worse, a high percentage of its residents are over 65.
Many Mainers are well aware of this demographic shift and decline, but meaningful steps to address the problem appear to be lacking. There are plenty of meetings; one was recently held in Presque Isle to discuss the declining population numbers. The two featured speakers (both from Minnesota) used the term “out-migration.” What no one addressed in this meeting, or in any other discussion of “out-migration,” is the inherent accelerator that the current curriculum in most Maine schools provides to entice students to leave this region.
As more and more students are pushed into college preparation courses, e.g., chemistry, calculus and Advanced Placement courses, the expectation is that they will attend university to pursue studies leading to white collar employment. Trendy college fields of study often do not lend themselves to employment in these northern communities traditionally focused on lumbering, tourism, and agriculture. So many of the students never return.
One approach, which too few seem to be discussing, is for high schools to return to providing more vocational training in areas where there are good paying jobs here in Maine. I am talking plumbing, construction, electrical work, jobs that currently offer incomes in excess of what many new college graduates are making.
I assure you that there is a continuing need for these jobs. After purchasing our home here, I have had occasion to employ well drillers, heavy equipment operators, electricians, roofers and plumbers. None were under 55 years of age. The plumber told me that there are now only 1/3 the number of licensed plumbers in Maine as 20 years ago. I have no idea who will do these jobs when these fellows retire or die. I might add that these individuals are relatively affluent, are home-owners, and seem to have a satisfying lifestyle.
I would also suggest an increased emphasis on obtaining improved cell service and internet connectivity to all Maine communities. Young people (and older ones) now regard their smart phones and electronic devices as mandatory necessities. Many of today’s youngsters in rural areas are simply not going to stay if they do not have connectivity. To achieve improved coverage, state and local politicians need to become immediately involved to re-order priorities to meet this need, just as the Rural Electrification Act was enacted by the U.S. Congress in 1936 with highly successful results. And while they are at it, direct increased funding to improve the roads; have you been on Route 15 lately?
An additional complicating factor is that many local residents want to keep this region exactly as it is now, even if that means turning away new employment options. I continue to see “No” signs in yards urging fellow citizens to veto proposed projects, such as windmills, new electric transmission lines, and highways running east-west.
This issue is literally a life and death challenge for northern Maine. It is wonderful here; someone needs to keep it running. Those high school numbers mentioned above do not lie.
Ed Linz is a retired nuclear submarine commander and high school physics teacher who winters in Virginia and spends his summers in Maine.