AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Janet Mills’ administration is expected to release Maine’s first 10-year economic development plan in mid-December, promising a document specific enough to track progress toward goals but broad enough to allow policymakers to shape the path.
The plan, which has been in the works virtually since the Democratic governor took office in January, is the latest in a decadeslong history of similar efforts that started, stopped or barely started. It will be a centerpiece of Mills’ tenure and could prompt years of debate.
The economic development conversation has changed less than one may think since 1854, when Gov. William Crosby, a Whig who served two years, told lawmakers only “prosperity at home” would lure back the “young and vigorous” people who had left Maine to work or learn.
It is largely dominated by a dour demographic picture. Maine is the oldest state by median age. From 2016 to 2026, the state expects the workforce to lose 22 percent of people in the prime working-age range of 45 through 54. Deaths have outnumbered births since 2012.
At the same time, Maine’s natural advantages have long been recognized. In the 1800s, plentiful rivers fueled manufacturing. This year, the Maine Economic Growth Council cited sustainable forestland and high quality of air and water as some of the state’s main draws.
Each year, that group produces a report that tracks quality-of-life indicators. It was created in 1993 to produce and maintain a strategic economic plan — a requirement that still remains in state law — but it shortly lost much of its funding and the plan has never materialized.
The Mills administration rolled out the current process in May, assembling officials from the public, private and nonprofit sectors to steer it. It held a series of meetings across Maine that led to a long list of common challenges from Wells to Presque Isle and Farmington to Machias.
They included the concrete issues of demographics, an opioid crisis, the high cost of child care and housing, high taxes, and a lack of public transportation. There were more abstract concerns as well, including poor regional self-identities and a perceived need for better marketing.
Heather Johnson, the commissioner of the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, said the plan aims to bridge a conflict between having “some stability and a clear roadmap” and having “enough metrics to know when it’s working and we need to change.”
“I think what you’ll see is there is a real focus on talent and a real focus on innovation and the enablers for those two things,” Johnson said.
Materials prepared for the group leading the plan show overall goals of growing median wages, Maine’s workforce and value added per job. Those goals will be combined with some policy solutions aimed at short- and long-term solutions and metrics that will track the state’s progress.
Dana Connors, the president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, said those metrics will drive accountability to the plan from the Mills administration and the Legislature, citing it as one major reason for “a lot of hope and encouragement” around it from the business community.
The word “investment” appears more than 100 times in notes from the meetings around Maine and minority Republicans in the Legislature have made the level of spending in nearly $8 billion two-year budget they grudgingly accepted in June a point of contention with Democrats. More money will be hard to find in that environment, even if goals are widely shared.
“Hopefully, people will be willing to have a serious debate about it, build on it if there’s something really crucial they feel is missing or debate over how to achieve a given objective,” said Yellow Light Breen, the CEO of the Maine Development Foundation.