Maine faces many challenges, so I paid attention when I read a news story about a speech to the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce by Sen. Angus King in which he described our five most serious long-term challenges.
Today I’ll share his list with you and add my comments.
The most serious challenge, according to Angus, is our aging and incomplete infrastructure. Angus noted that many sewer treatment plants are now 40 to 50 years old and must be rebuilt, a very costly process.
But he was not just talking about waste. For instance, the much-written-about but little-done-about lack of broadband internet service in much of Maine, particularly in rural Maine, is a huge problem, leaving us out of the major growth in businesses that rely on broadband — and that’s most businesses these days.
Angus used an example of someone who was considering the purchase of a home, but then is told they’d never have broadband. Sort of like telling them it’s a great home and community, but they’ll never have running water, he said.
And while we’re on the subject of water, I’d add the challenges we face with lead or other chemicals in too many water sources. Clean water needs more attention, for sure.
Up next on Angus’s list was climate change, which he noted is killing shellfish and moving lobsters further east on the coast.
I’ve been writing and talking about climate change for quite a while now, and there is some serious work being done on the topic here in Maine. But we’re not close to solving this monumental problem, which, I am afraid, we are leaving to our children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren to deal with. I’m also afraid they won’t look on us very kindly for ignoring the problem and failing to resolve it.
Typical of Angus, he did see some positive news in climate change, noting that the melting of the polar ice caps has opened up northern international shipping routes, which Maine is positioned to capitalize on. Yes, Angus, that’s true, and I guess those ships will be able to dock on Congress Street in Portland, after Commercial Street is flooded by the rising ocean tides.
I totally agree with Angus’s third challenge: lack of diversity in Maine energy sources. He rightly reported that energy costs are not the issue, lack of diversity is the problem.
I’ve written before that Maine could be energy independent, using wood, wind, water and the sun, but we are far from that goal today. Just think what it could mean for our state, which spends the most on fossil fuels of any state in the country. Angus also thinks that reliance on natural gas would be a mistake, good advice as we ask taxpayers to pay for expanded natural gas lines into Maine.
I’ve been involved in issues in the northern forest for decades, and Angus raised a concern about the closure of paper mills and the decline in the market for timber.
He rightly focused on making new products with our trees, something the forest industry — led by the Maine Forest Products Council — is deeply involved in. My friends at MFPC are optimistic about the future of forest products jobs and the industry, and I sure hope they are right.
This issue reminded me of something Angus said when he was governor: “No fish should leave the state with its head on.” Yes, let’s process our fish, and our fiber, right here in Maine, and stop exporting so many of our trees.
You may know that the federal government has essentially declared our forest products industry a disaster, and sent a special team to Maine to address the state’s forest-based economic challenges. This includes an investment of millions of dollars in rural Maine communities, good news for sure, but a sad recognition of how much trouble we are really in.
The fifth challenge cited by Angus hit close to home with me: the aging workforce and population decline. Angus called this “a negative demographic time bomb.”
At 67 years of age, and semi-retired, I look around me and see — mostly — a lot of people older than me. Two of our three kids are living out of state, where economic opportunities are so much better.
“How old is Maine?” Angus asked. And answering his own question he noted, “We’re so old, our junior senator is 72.”
I was pleased to see that Angus agrees with me on another issue. Immigrants are bringing — and must be allowed to continue to bring — economic vitality to our state.