When I spoke last summer to the Portland Rotary Club, I asked, “How many of you have been to Maine?” That got a response of hoots, howls, and laughter. But I wanted to make a point, because my talk was about rural, hard-pressed, significantly discouraged, population-diminished Maine — where we still love our state but wonder if there is a future here for our children and grandchildren.
Two of my three children live out of state, where their economic opportunities are much better. I like to say I was born a sportsman, a Methodist, and a Republican, but I was really born a Mainer — a rural Mainer to be precise.
I’m investing quite a bit of my time now on issues involving rural Maine, especially the economy. So I want to tell you about two important events.
The first is scheduled for Sunday, Jan. 22, at 2 p.m. at University of Maine at Augusta’s Jewett Hall. The “Senior Forum” is hosted by the UMA College of Arts and Sciences and UMA Senior College. Alan Caron of Envision Maine, a columnist for this paper, will join me for a talk titled, “Envisioning Maine’s Future Economy.”
I’ve enjoyed working with Alan over the years. He organizes some of the state’s most important and informative events, including last year’s Summit on the Maine Economy in Portland. The place was packed and I appreciated the chance to talk about my economic concerns in rural Maine.
But a month later, I was speaking to the Bangor Rotary and no one there attended or knew anything about the Envision Maine summit. When I returned home, I let Alan know and we began brainstorming another summit.
I am very pleased to announce that the Summit on the Rural Maine Economy is scheduled for Feb. 10 at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. This will be a very important day for all of us who are concerned about rural Maine and I hope you will attend. You can get more information at www.envisonmaine.org.
Alan says, “The purpose of the event is to focus on positive things happening in rural Maine, and in particular on companies and organizations that are innovating and succeeding. It will feature state and regional innovators in rural development, and 10 people who are being honored as ‘Rural Sparkplugs’ for the work they are doing and the example they are setting.”
I’m really excited about this event, which includes an array of workshops on agriculture, forestry, energy, tourism, broadband connections, climate change, people from away, and the tools rural Mainers need to succeed. Yes, it’s an ambitious agenda and an important one.
At the Senior Forum in Augusta, Alan and I will address the transitioning of Maine’s natural resource economy toward a more innovative and entrepreneurial future. Another ambitious topic. I will spend some time talking about all that we’ve lost in rural Maine, especially sporting camps, hunters, and anglers — and why we’ve lost them. Personally, I think our natural resource-based economy is the future of rural Maine. But we shall see.
I think we have to be realistic. Rural Maine will continue to lose population, and it’s going to take a mighty effort to save our rural communities. And yes, this is all about community.
I hope we can focus, at both events, on issues and opportunities specific to rural Maine. We are struggling to maintain our rural schools, health care systems, libraries, and even our cafes. In Mount Vernon, we are lucky to have good jobs within a short driving distance in Farmington, Lewiston, Augusta, and Waterville. But move further west, north and Downeast, and that’s not the case. It pains me to drive down the main street of some rural towns and see abandoned and dilapidated homes and businesses.
I know there are many people out there who would love to live in great small Maine communities like Mount Vernon with good jobs close by, awesome lakes and streams, 6,000 stunning acres of public lands, community centers, country stores, and yes, the fabulous Olde Post Office Café, where I sometimes go for breakfast and am still there at lunch time.
Like our communities, those of us who live in rural Maine are old and getting older. As our population has declined, so too has our political influence. Rural folks feel abandoned by our political leaders and it’s hard to argue that we haven’t been.
Perhaps the Rural Maine Summit will inspire our political leaders to tackle all of the issues and problems in the rural parts of our state, and get to work helping us survive.