Mainers are known for our resourcefulness, practicality, and ingenuity. It’s time we applied those qualities to taking a new look at where our economic opportunities exist, and how we can seize them.
Maine needs a smart economic development plan that capitalizes on our advantages. That plan should be rooted in who we are as a state and in our historical strengths. And it should be realistic in understanding how to create good opportunities for these times based on those strengths.
That simple fact was as true 100 years ago as it is today. In decades or even centuries past, large employers took advantage of our many swift-moving rivers to power sawmills and other industrial facilities. In a time before the internet, paper was in high demand and Maine’s abundant forests fed a hungry pulp and paper industry. Before that, they supplied the state’s historic shipbuilding trade. Those industries sustained thousands of jobs.
Today, the demands of our economy have changed again. Technology has advanced. Globalization has blown markets wide open, creating opportunities but also causing painful new realities in manufacturing and in the labor market.
Meanwhile, for workers on the ground level of our economy, it feels like our economic vision hasn’t adjusted for those new realities. We continue plodding along on the same course set by our forebears generations ago.
Our waters, like our mountains, forests, and coastline, are just as valuable as they’ve ever been. But the nature of that value has changed. The rivers that once powered our mills are still a unique advantage for our state. But instead of powering manufacturing, they attract tourists, hunters, anglers, vacationers, wildlife watchers, and other outdoors enthusiasts.
When a sea change occurs, the wisest among us see it coming and prepare to take advantage of it, or at least to weather the storm. And lots of Mainers have done just that. There are good examples right here in our region.
Take a look at Hodgdon Yachts. That company saw the advantage of emerging technology and began building boats from high-tech composites, rather than traditional materials. It adapted its facilities and its workforce to remain a leader in world-class boat construction. Today, its Comanche sailboat – a 100-foot yacht produced by Hodgdon – has an amazing list of “firsts,” including a recent record-setting transatlantic journey that shaved more than a day off the previous record.
Like many communities dependent on tourism, the Boothbay peninsula economy booms between Memorial Day and Labor Day, and contracts in the offseason. That’s a difficult reality to overcome, but Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens has been determined to do it.
The gardens set out to become a year-round destination. Last year, the Gardens Aglow event attracted huge crowds of visitors to our region in the usually dead months of November and December. It showcased the gardens’ great beauty in the winter months and made business bloom out of season in the harbor.
The unnerving truth is that innovation and economic transformation are necessary in our state. The great news, though, is that with vision, both are possible. Even our besieged forest-based economy, which has been set back by losses in the pulp and paper industry, is ripe for change: the University of Maine has proven in the laboratory that cellulose nanofibers derived from Maine’s forest products can make new construction materials with impressive strength and durability, such as insulation board, bioplastic, and a Sheetrock alternative.
That’s technology that should be scalable, and could create a whole new industry for our state.
But first, we’ll need a plan. Today, we don’t have it. But more and more Mainers are looking to the horizon and seeing that sea change coming. They’re looking to adapt, the way Hodgdon Yachts and Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens and UMaine already have.
You see that spirit of innovation percolating in renewable energy; in agriculture, fisheries, and local food; and in technology. You see leaders in the public and private sector championing investment in broadband and clean energy, not only to create new jobs but to lay the groundwork for the future. We need to incubate that innovation, and be bold, clear-eyed, and steadfast in our vision.
With leadership and smart investment, we can set Mainers and their tremendous resourcefulness and ingenuity to solving these new challenges and creating opportunities from them. We can create a plan for all of us to thrive again, together.
(Sen. Chris Johnson, D-Somerville, represents all of Lincoln County except Dresden, plus Washington and Windsor.)