Whenever I, or anyone else, use the phrase “the two Maines,” there follow two immediate responses. The first is: “Well, everything south of Portland is just northern Massachusetts anyway.” The second is: “What a terrible disservice to all the distinct and unique places in ‘the rest of Maine’!”

With that in mind, and with full knowledge that no amount of evidence is ever a match for any individual’s sense of terminal uniqueness, I have been led again to consider two questions that have long bedeviled Maine policymakers:

n Short of dealing with each of the nearly 500 municipalities in Maine, what grouping makes sense for trying to design and successfully implement development policies?

n What are the key commonalities and distinct differences that make any combination of villages, towns, cities and counties similar to each other and distinct from other regions?

Setting aside the Portland metropolitan area (York, Cumberland and Sagadahoc counties), it seems to me that the “rest of Maine” can usefully be thought of as four regions organized around rivers, the ocean and the Canadian border. The first (in the sense simply of geographic sequence) is the midcoast region (Lincoln, Knox, Waldo and Hancock counties); the second is the Androscoggin region (Androscoggin, Oxford and Franklin counties); the third is the Kennebec region (Kennebec, Somerset and Piscataquis counties); and the fourth is the eastern region (Penobscot, Washington and Aroostook counties).

Each of these regions is bound together by a pre-20th century, water-based transportation spine (often later mirrored by a highway) and a downriver or coastal urban hub. Each also has an upriver, inland or seaward periphery that is forest-, agricultural- or fishing-based and from which, over the past two centuries, industrialization has come and, over the last 30 years, largely departed.

When analyzed by the simple metric of employment growth between 2010 (the end of the Great Recession) and 2015, the regions exhibit a clear pattern relative to distance from the south.

For the Portland area, total employment growth over the five-year period was 3 percent; for the midcoast region, it was 2.3 percent; for the Androscoggin region, it was just above 1 percent; for the Kennebec region, just below 1 percent, and for the eastern region, it was minus 1.7 percent.

And like Russian nesting dolls, each of these regions exhibits a pattern of declining employment growth that similarly mirrors the distance from its urban center. In the Androscoggin region, for example, five-year rates of employment growth go from 3.6 percent in Androscoggin County to 2.2 percent in Oxford County to minus 2.8 percent in Franklin County. In the Kennebec region, the employment growth rate was 2.5 percent in Kennebec County, 0.8 percent in Somerset County and minus 0.2 percent in Piscataquis County. The Penobscot-Washington-Aroostook cascade is, respectively, 1.7 percent to minus 2.2 percent to minus 4.5 percent.

Similarly cascading declines are true for total retail sales and for the subset associated with the tourism and hospitality sector: lodging, restaurant and “other merchandise” sales (meaning non-department store, non-big box and specialty stores).

Looking at these patterns, the question naturally arises, “Does geography, then, equal destiny?” Is the effort to replace the rapidly disappearing rural manufacturing base futile?

Will employment simply flow down from the mountains and streams to downriver urban centers and out to sea like so much water following the dictates of natural laws it doesn’t understand? Or is there some strategic action we might take to interrupt this flow, to dam it up (so to speak) and use it to generate some new forms of economic activity within each region?

The answer seems to me to lie in picking our battles, in resisting the urge to spread scarce investment dollars evenly all over, trying to solve every little problem. We will be better served by focusing on the urban centers in each region and making them more internally sustainable (and thereby more useful to their peripheries).

The investments along Bangor’s waterfront have paid significant dividends. Tourism sales are up 12 percent over the last five years in Penobscot County, compared to growth of 6 percent in Washington County and a drop of 3 percent in Aroostook County. The growth of Athena Health in Belfast has had significant effects throughout Waldo County. The expansions of The Jackson Laboratory in Ellsworth and Collaborative Consulting in Waterville promise similarly broad benefits throughout, respectively, Hancock and Kennebec counties.

Economic growth is less analogous to the field-by-field, seed-by-seed expansion of crop agriculture than to the spread of strawberries where a strong plant sends out runners in search of the most fertile location in all directions. Somewhere one runner finds a good spot, sinks roots and a strong new plant arises, often far from its origins. We need to prepare our soil and welcome the runners around us.

Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions, Inc. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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