What do the words grandparents, broadband and immigrants all have in common? They are part of a compelling mix of factors that brought my kids back to live in Maine. By kids, I mean my oldest son (age 34) and his wife (age 33), who left Maine 15 years ago to go to big universities out west, where they stayed to work for years.

Nathan and Amber are classic examples of the dreaded exodus of our young people — going to other states for school or jobs and never coming back.

Many of our young people do come back though, especially when they begin raising children, because they seek the quality of life that our communities, culture and environment provide. “Maine: The Way Life Should Be” is not just a marketing jingle. It describes the magnet that Maine becomes to our youth when they spend significant time away.

What do we need to have in place to bring our kids back — or keep them in the first place? We all think that jobs are the central issue. Employment is, of course, very important.

But that’s not the only thing. My kids made the decision to come back before they even knew they’d have jobs in Maine. They had adopted two multicultural boys and wanted to return to enjoy the support and connection that grandparents can provide.

So family was the first great pull. But the next most important factor may be surprising to Mainers living in the whitest state in the Union. My kids wanted their children to live in a community where there are many people of color. And if they could not find a city or town diverse enough in Maine, they were not moving back. Fortunately, Portland made the grade with a good school system that is rapidly becoming more racially diverse.

Mainers take note: It is not enough that we merely tolerate the change brought about by immigrants and minorities coming to our communities. We should welcome that change. It is an important feature that will attract young people and families to move to our aging state.

Affordable housing was, of course, an important issue (particularly when looking at Portland), made easier for Nathan and Amber because they sold a small house in Seattle (another expensive market).

However, this will remain a decisive factor for young people trying to remain in or move back to Maine. Even rentals are becoming out of reach, with one report, by National Low Income Housing Coalition in 2014, noting that a Maine resident has to work full time at $16.19 an hour to afford a decent two-bedroom apartment. That is probably not enough for a Portland rental, if you can find one.

Other factors that my kids considered in choosing a community are common themes with millennials these days. They wanted a vibrant urban experience (this from my son who grew up in Somerville, a town of 500). Nathan and Amber wanted to shop in locally based small businesses that feature Maine-made products and foods. Their experience in Seattle was sobering; their house was around the corner from a mall that just drained the life out of the neighborhood and business district.

They also wanted to be able to walk or bike to these stores, restaurants and parks. They consulted online walkability and bikeability scores when looking for a house and neighborhood. Their goal was to remain a one-car family.

An absolute requirement for young people today, whether urban or rural, is access to decent cellphone coverage and high-speed Internet. Absolutely non-negotiable. My son, who is an engineer, was able to secure a telecommuting arrangement with his Seattle employer, which required good broadband coverage in his new Maine community. Again, Portland filled the bill. “Mom,” he said regretfully, “I could not have moved back to Somerville.”

Granted, my kids are young professionals (an engineer and a masters-level teacher), so high-tech capability comes with the territory. But even lower income people need that coverage. A cellphone for a young person just starting out in the work world is his/her home telephone (no land line needed), computer (no expensive laptop required), mail generator (who needs the post office?) and answering machine (for messages from possible employers). However, none of that is possible without decent coverage.

If you are at all familiar with Grow Smart Maine, you know that their work addresses most of these issues. Grow Smart Maine summarizes our challenge well: “There is one common goal that unites Mainers — our shared desire to have our kids raise our grandchildren close to home. Our challenge is to offer the safe and interesting communities our kids want to move back to while creating the economic opportunity they need to make that happen.”

Enough said.

Lisa Miller, of Somerville, is a former legislator who served on the Health and Human Services and Appropriations and Financial Affairs committees.

filed under:

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.