The real estate market in Maine today is as hot as a February woodstove, defying all the fears from a year ago. A new migration to Maine is underway, and it’s not just people from Boston or New York, exiting big cities for more affordable and safer smaller ones, but also people from every corner of the country who want to live in a place like this.

And they aren’t just buying summer homes. They’re moving here, often bringing family or friends and even their businesses with them.

Maine has had its share of booms and busts in real estate over the last century. But this is something different, and it’s going to change the trajectory of Maine’s economy and communities in profound ways, bringing both welcome economic opportunities and a new set of housing and school challenges.

The immediate plus side is that lots of people, in large swaths of the state, are selling their homes or land for more than they ever thought possible. The downside is that a hot housing market means it’s harder for everyone else to buy or rent a house.

As a builder of lakefront properties, now working on my third home in two years, I am seeing this buying frenzy firsthand. Experienced crews are in high demand. Buildable land is harder to find. Quality homes and even fixer-uppers are flying off the shelf, particularly in towns with good schools and protected natural beauty.

I also am experiencing this boom through my son’s eyes. After a few decades in the “big city,” he’s at last returning to Maine with his family. Not so long ago, people who wanted to move to Maine struggled to find a good job but not to find a good house. My son got a great job, but can’t find the house he and his family need, at a price they can afford, anywhere in the eight or 10 communities in which they are searching.

It’s tempting to think that this is just a short-term phenomenon that will go away once this extraordinary year-of-the-virus is a fading memory. But it isn’t. We’re witnessing something that could become a disruptive upheaval in Maine, one predicted 15 years ago by the Brookings Institution and GrowSmart Maine, of which I was then a part.

What we said then is this: Maine has a terrific brand and character that will be immensely attractive to in-migrants, as soon as we have good transportation to the rest of the country and high-speed internet connections throughout the state. If we’d had a more precise crystal ball, we might have added that good software, like Zoom, would mark the moment when it really began to happen in earnest.

COVID-19 has given us a crash course in what remote work looks like, and changed what was a trickle of in-migration to a raging stream. It may become a river, in time, as we expand broadband speeds in Maine, recommit to improving bus, train and air travel to and from the state, and begin to deploy new technologies, like the StarLink low-altitude satellite internet connections for remote sites, and solar-battery home packages for off-grid or unreliable-grid homes.

This in-migration was also accelerated this year by Maine’s sensible and balanced response to the COVID-19 virus. As painful as it has been to manage a pandemic of this kind, we’ve struck a fairly good balance (that’s when everyone is grumbling) between the competing needs of science, medicine, business and education. Nothing has been perfect, but overall we’ve let the science guide us more than the politics.

The result has been that when people across the country have turned on CNN or the other networks for their nightly news, they’ve seen national maps of COVID-19 infections that always show Maine doing better than most, further polishing our already-strong brand.

The credit for that success goes to many people – starting with everyone who wore masks and kept their distance – but two people stand out. Gov. Mills has provided a steady hand on the helm, even while surrounded by fear and anger from those who thought we could imagine a pandemic away, or simply impose normality because we wanted to.

The second is the irrepressible and irreplaceable Dr. Nirav Shah, who rivals America’s most trusted doctor, Anthony Fauci, in honest truth-telling and compassion.

So now, through a convergence of a strong brand, a virus that was thrust upon us and responsible action on our parts, we’re seeing a benefit that we could only imagine before. The challenge now is to make it work for the people who were here all along.

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