I love the state of Maine. Ours is a state of vast untapped potential, created by the natural resources that have fueled our traditional industries, as well as our citizens’ storied ingenuity, artistry, and strong work ethic.
Yet we are also a state that has lost industries and jobs to the changing times brought by globalization. The kinds of jobs Mainers could raise a family on have become fewer and further between. When they’ve been replaced at all, it’s been by lower-paying jobs with unpredictable hours and, sometimes, no benefits.
With those losses have come hardship for families. Young people are leaving our state in droves for greater opportunities in other states – an exodus that has hollowed out communities and created a looming demographic crisis.
In Lincoln County, we have the oldest population in the oldest state in the nation, and as a recent column by the Maine Development Foundation and Maine Chamber of Commerce makes clear, we need more young families to make Maine (and Lincoln County) their home.
Meanwhile, the state has neglected opportunities to address the outsourcing of our jobs and our youth; time and again, gridlock, austerity, and neglect have thwarted efforts to innovate, invest, and grow our economy.
Maine has reached a critical juncture. We need to make a course correction as soon as possible, because neglect and austerity measures won’t fix the shrinking middle class or our demographic winter. Those who oppose investments in a stronger middle class future can no longer afford to hide their heads in the sand. Instead, we have to make the investment necessary to set Maine’s economy on a virtuous cycle of better jobs and providing what young families need to change this reality.
Luckily, Maine has the tools, grit, and ingenuity needed to right the ship. But it will require leadership locally and in Augusta. And it will require targeted investments to create an environment where new businesses and young families can plant roots.
Let’s examine the kinds of investments that build on significant strengths or remove significant impediments to that stronger future:
Modernize infrastructure: Bringing our infrastructure up to snuff will not only create jobs for the men and women who will build and maintain it, but will make it easier for businesses to choose Maine by facilitating the easy transportation of products and people. It’s important for both reasons because Maine’s major roads have only fair to unacceptable conditions and 34 percent of bridges are structurally deficient or obsolete.
But modernizing our infrastructure isn’t just about our roads, bridges, rails, and ports: it’s also about expanding access to broadband internet, which is today a prerequisite for the modern economy. Our rural regions especially need access to reliable, high-speed internet so that businesses can reach the global market and so that workers can have the flexibility to work online no matter where they are.
And it’s our energy grid. Climate change threatens so much of what makes us who we are. It endangers our forests, waters, and natural resource-based industries. But this challenge is also an opportunity. States that adopt, embrace, and encourage renewable energy will be the ones that reap the benefits of innovation and job creation. Renewable energy, such as solar and offshore wind power, will lead to lower and more stable energy costs in the long term, decreased pollution, and more jobs.
Build on our competitive advantages: The kind of jobs we know won’t just move overseas are the ones that capitalize on Maine’s competitive advantages. When it comes to fresh, quality food, local matters, particularly when that food also benefits from Maine’s reputation for purity and wholesomeness. The New England Food Vision showed that New England can provide 50 percent of its food instead of the roughly 10 percent it does today. And Maine has the strongest potential for taking advantage of that opportunity if we help our food producers expand and process and deliver more of what our aquaculture, agriculture, and sustainable fisheries produce.
The offshore wind generation I mentioned earlier? That’s one of our competitive advantages as well. The University of Maine has developed a design that is half as expensive to construct and maintain as other designs. And the National Renewable Energy Laboratory inventory of offshore power generation potential assigns the area off the Gulf of Maine the highest potential on the East Coast, of nearly 160 gigawatts.
Support vibrant communities: We need to help young Mainers choose to settle here. In addition to good job opportunities, it also means vibrant multigenerational communities where young people want to live and can thrive. So we have to ensure there are effective training and education opportunities for them, as well as strong schools, good early childhood programs, affordable child care, and policies to encourage homeownership.
All these things together – making the investments necessary to create jobs, supporting our competitive and growing industries, and fostering welcoming communities – are the measures that can set us on the right course, and change Maine’s stars.
(Sen. Chris Johnson, D-Somerville, represents all of Lincoln County except Dresden, plus Washington and Windsor.)