Yet another speaker came to Maine last week to present the argument that all we need to do to prosper is to lower taxes, cut regulation and improve schools. Of course, those things are all important, and every state needs to work on them to survive in the modern economy. But if everyone’s doing those things, then where’s the strategy for winning?
Most states have their peculiar strengths and weaknesses, and Maine is no exception. Among our challenges are that we’re cold, remote, expensive and disorganized. On the plus side, we’re small enough to get things done, we’re known for creating products that are dependable and wholesome, and people love it here.
So what is the best and most realistic strategy for growing Maine’s economy? The fellow from Utah, and many others, including our current governor, believe we need to become the low-tax, let-industry-run-free, best-educated state. Fair enough, except for the problem of basic math, which makes it hard to simultaneously cut taxes and increase spending on education.
There seems to be two great schools of thought on a strategy for Maine. We’ve heard about one for decades. Call it the “grow from away” idea. It boils down to making Maine the cheap date of states so that businesses across the country will come courting, allowing us to steal jobs from other states that haven’t yet become quite so attractive.
It’s worth noting that we’ve been working that strategy since the mills began to close, and you’d be hard-pressed to point to one example of where it’s worked in Maine.
Another strategy is beginning to emerge in the state. You could call it the “grow from within” approach. It acknowledges the importance of taxes and regulations and things like welfare, but doesn’t obsess about them as though they’re the be-all and end-all to our economic problems.
The “grow from within” idea urges us to bootstrap the next economy by focusing on creating and growing companies here in Maine. It calls for making Maine an incubator state and a magnet for startups and innovative companies that are creating products that can be exported to the world.
“Grow from within” concerns itself with how Maine can create an environment that fosters fast-growing new companies. It suggests that we train more skilled employees and employers, while questioning whether there is a level playing field in Maine between big businesses and smaller innovators.
While these two strategies point us in different directions, they also share a good deal of common ground.
They both argue that real growth can be driven only by the private sector, that tax dollars should be spent wisely and that we need to improve the business climate in Maine. They also both call for education reform and tax incentives for jobs.
The good news is that while government and business leaders continue to debate these things, Maine people have been taking matters into their own hands.
There is an exciting undercurrent of change happening in Maine right now, and a new economy is emerging in all corners of the state, growing from our own soil and communities, and driven by innovative small businesses and entrepreneurs who share a love of Maine.
It includes everything from a new wave of farming to advanced technology, precision manufacturing and renewable energy, all of it fueled by the same ingenuity, resourcefulness and determination that have been part of Maine’s DNA for hundreds of years.
It is an economy driven by the doers of Maine, who aren’t waiting for big companies or government to come rescue us. They’re doing what Mainers have always done: working with the tools and resources that we have, and building the jobs that we need.
After decades of transition from an economy that was largely dependent upon our natural resources and mills, the foundation of Maine’s next economy is under construction.
That new economy will be on display June 12-20 at Startup and Create Week in Portland, which is attracting 120 top people from around the country to share what is working where they are and how we can do the same here. (For more information, visit www.mainestartupandcreateweek.com.)
On June 18, a panel of experts will gather to talk about what Maine can do to grow an innovative entrepreneurial economy. (More information is available at www.envisionmaine.org.)
If you want to be part of this new, optimistic direction for Maine, I urge you to join in those events and to help celebrate Maine’s can-do spirit and the revival of its entrepreneurial culture.
Alan Caron is president of Envision Maine, a nonprofit organization working to promote Maine’s next economy, and the co-author of an upcoming book called “Maine’s Next Economy.” He can be contacted at:[email protected]