In mid-May, I spoke to the Rockland Kiwanis, but I didn’t talk about the coast, where the economy is perking right along, led by tourism.
Lobsters and lighthouses still drive our summer tourism economy, and Rockland’s got both.
I decided to give the good folks on the coast a look at the other Maine and its struggling economy. I told them to buckle their seat belts. It was going to be a rough ride.
Sort of like those signs on every rural road in the spring that say “bump.” I always wonder which bump they mean. There are a lot of bumps in rural Maine.
We have Blaine House conferences, Brookings Institution reports, lots of talk about our great outdoors and small villages as the defining characteristics of Maine, but every year it’s getting harder to live and work in those villages.
We are losing our heritage, our farms, our rural natural resources-based industries, our small towns and small schools, and even our kids, all the things we value and hold dear as Mainers.
You are familiar with the statistics. Lost jobs. Lost population. Even the McDonald’s is boarded up in Greenville. What’s gone wrong?
Let’s start with hunting and fishing, once the backbone of our rural economy. Fishing license sales peaked in 1990 and hunting license sales peaked in 1981. Let me ask you this question: who was the last Maine governor who hunted?
Any guesses? It was Edmund Muskie. We have not had a Maine governor who hunted for more than a half century!
Hunting is suffering a long steady decline in participants. And Maine’s top game animal, the whitetail deer, has disappeared in the north country and Down East.
Maine once advertised that a nonresident’s chance of getting a deer in Maine was better than 55 percent. Today those odds in some areas of the state are less than 2 percent.
I could fill this newspaper with heartbreaking stories. Stories like that of my friends at a Patton lodge that once had 100 nonresident deer hunters — most from Pennsylvania — each November. That dwindled to just six hunters in 2010. And last year, they gave up deer hunting in favor of a fall bear hunt at their Ontario camps.
Oh, Maine is on the move all right. Our guides and outfitters have moved to Kansas, Ohio and even New York, where deer hunting opportunities are much better. Last year in New York, deer hunters shot 50,000 more deer than we have in Maine!
And then we suffered a winter with very little snow. Since snowmobiling is another critical economic driver in rural Maine, we had an economic disaster that few seem to have noticed.
Lest you think I know nothing about the coast, let me tell you this. I recently attended the premiere of a film called “Cod Academy.” It’s a University of Maine project created in partnership with the Maine Aquaculture Association to help commercial fishermen transition to fish farming. The film, produced by Kyle Hockmeyer of Fieldstone Media in Augusta, was great, but there was no happy ending.
Of the commercial fishermen who participated in the educational program, only one is pursuing a fish farm, and he hopes to grow halibut in Boothbay Harbor.
You can imagine the uproar from ocean-side homeowners.
And the poor entrepreneur has a half-dozen state and federal agencies to deal with before he ever gets going, and it takes four years to grow his first halibut for market.
Nothing is easy, especially in our state. Rural Maine, however, is suffering the most, having lost much of its retail economy as shoppers flock to cities and suburbs for the shopping malls and chain stores.
Also gone are the good-paying manufacturing jobs, leaving little else for young people who have moved to southern Maine or out-of-state for better economic opportunities (including two of our three children). This is especially painful.
Political power also has drained south as people moved away from rural Maine — taking their tax money with them.
If there is any hope, perhaps it will be found in a panel discussion about rural economic development scheduled for 7:30 p.m. July 11 at the University of Maine, Farmington.
The panel features some folks who are working on the problem: Mike Aube, Eastern Maine Development Corp.; Dina Jackson, Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments; Tanya Swain, Western Mountains Alliance; John Williams, Maine Pulp and Paper Association; and Roxanne Elfin, Maine Development Foundation.
This important event is free and open to the public. If you care about rural Maine, perhaps you should be there.
George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon 04352, or [email protected] Read more of Smith’s writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.