“Maine should be Inspirationland,” said David Shaw, the impressive founder of IDEXX and many other high-tech companies and the keynote speaker at the second annual Envision Maine Summit, an event that was inspiring, for sure.
Billed as “Conversations about Maine’s Future,” the conference, organized by Alan Caron, included six break-out sessions on key topics: Maine’s rural economy, climate change, the state’s need for more people, production of our own energy, broadband expansion, and reinventing education. Shaw’s fascinating presentation was followed by brief five-minute presentations by 12 of the state’s most impressive people, plus one by me titled “Growing Maine without wrecking the place.”
I could write a dozen columns about all that I learned that day, but here’s a brief summary. Don Gooding of the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development, introduced as “the Johnny Appleseed of Maine entrepreneurs,” said we’d need 1,300 new “gazelles,” people who own their own businesses, to achieve our economic goals by 2020, Maine’s 200th anniversary. That translates into 150 new highly ambitious companies.
Writer and reporter Colin Woodard told us that we’re not a breakwater any more, thanks to technology, “but we have to overcome our pessimistic and negative attitude.”
“Time to think positively” was a theme emphasized by many speakers.
There was a lot of talk about the importance of attracting “people from away” to build our economy and sustain our state. Shaw disclosed that he is from away and when he asked who else in the audience was not a native Mainer, about half the hands went up.
Later, during my talk, I gave those folks a bit of encouragement by telling them about the community college course that Maine comedian Gary Crocker and I are creating that they can take to become a Mainer. They got a kick out of it when I also told them that we recognize some Mainers are not good Mainers, so we’ll have a rehab course for them.
Shaw’s amazing story includes a life-threatening brain injury he suffered four years ago that is usually fatal. But he recovered over a two-year period, and announced, “You can get there from here.”
As a lover of libraries, I appreciated Fletcher Kittredge of Great Works Internet, who focused on Maine’s amazing school library network, recognized nationally, while emphasizing the need to expand connectivity statewide. He said it’ll take a lot of private funding, and the discussion has not even started yet. That situation is troubling, to be sure.
But that’s another thing I appreciated about the summit — nothing was sugar-coated. Kristina Egan, policy director of Envision Maine and director of Transportation for Massachusetts, noted, “We think good ideas to death when we should be bringing them to life.” Her best question was, “What should we stop doing so we can do what we need to do?”
Cathy Lee, a leader of Maine’s Climate Table initiative, reviewed a lengthy list of projects in our state that are addressing climate change problems and issues. I particularly loved the manure digesters that are creating “cow power.”
I wish you could have heard all the day’s informative, sometimes inspiring, talks. Well, actually, you will be able to, because Caron has put together a book of these talks, expanded in length, titled “Maine’s Next Economy,” that will be available for purchase soon.
The most interesting panel for me was the one that discussed, “New Hope for Maine’s Rural Economy.” Personally, I don’t see a lot of reason for hope about our rural economy, but Caron, Charlotte Mace of Biobased Maine, a business-led trade association, Mike Wilson of the Northern Forest Center, and Keith Bisson of Coastal Enterprises Institute did give me some hope.
Mace showed us new fabrics grown from trees and biodegradable material, reporting a rising global market for bio-based products, and emphasizing that Maine has 27 million tons of forest biomass available and lots of unused mill space — particularly in rural Maine — that could be used to make these new products.
Wilson has been leading a significant project to expand tourism in rural Maine, and also focuses some of his time on building businesses around wood products. But it’s his work on “quality destinations development” that is of most interest to me. He noted we now have 3 million acres of conserved land that the public can access for recreation, but, he said, “We haven’t figured out how to maximize the value of these lands, to create more jobs.” He got that right.
Bisson’s CEI programs are terrific too, from fisheries to food. He emphasized the potential of nature-based tourism and the need to diversify our ocean industries and products — such a growing sea vegetables. “Edible sea plants have great economic potential,” he reported. “Eat kelp, not kale.” Help yourself, today.