Old News Archive

THE NATIVE CONSERVATIVE

March 17, 2006 - TRC

THE NATIVE CONSERVATIVE

Neither time nor town stands still. Change is the norm these days. The lakes, rivers, hills and forests of the Kennebec Valley will not look the same 50 years from now, nor did they sport today's look 50 years ago.
We can act to protect what we most value about our home territory, or we can just let it all happen. Too many sit idly by, complaining about the changes, without getting involved in the real work of planning and directing development and conservation in their community, region and state.
There are people at the state level who are not sitting on the sidelines. They include prominent people from business, conservation organizations and foundations; political leaders; and other residents of Maine, organized into a project called GrowSmart -- a 3-year-old, nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting healthy communities and sustainable growth and directed by Alan Caron of Portland.
Focused on "boosting Maine's economy while protecting its greatest assets, including traditional towns, beautiful countryside, rural traditions and outstanding environment," the organization has put up $500,000 to contract with the Brookings Institution of Washington, D.C., to "undertake a major review of the demographic, economic and land-use trends shaping the state and to recommend a series of bold steps that can be taken to protect the uniqueness of the state while building a prosperous and sustainable future."
A tall order, indeed.
In two meetings with Caron and the Brookings staff, I have been impressed. Skeptical of yet another study, I was quickly disabused of the notion that this would be more of the same.
For one thing, Brookings has done this before -- most recently in Pennsylvania -- with excellent results.
For another, the Brookings staff's listening skills are exceptional. I organized one group of outdoor leaders to talk to the Brookings people about the problems and potential in our outdoor economy. I found them to be very good listeners, giving us all the impression that they were really hearing us, not just touching the right bases until they could tell us what they think.
Finally, they understand that in our past might be the answers to our future.
The Brookings staff will thoroughly examine demographic, economic and development trends; study how Maine is growing; and look in depth at the real effect of state and local policies on our ability to compete economically and on our land-use patterns. Brookings will also evaluate the effect that state and local tax policies have on growth and development patterns.
We cannot begin to move toward a better future if we do not understand the past, or what we are currently doing that holds our state back. If Brookings can get at our structural problems, we will be half way to a better future.
Although this part of the Brookings study is very important, more eagerly awaited will be its recommendations. It is supposed to outline "changes that Maine might adopt to grow in a competitive, fiscally responsible and sustainable manner, including a bold, actionable policy agenda tailored to the economic and fiscal realities of Maine and dedicated to boosting the state's economy and enhancing its quality of life."
The Brookings people are expected to do this with "clear examples from around the nation." Maine need not plow new ground. Many states are ahead of us, and the most effective policies and programs can easily be adapted to Maine, if we have the will.
The Brookings staff emphasized to me that they will be very focused on a few things that will deliver the most for our state.
Here is one possible example: Maine has topnotch private colleges. They could contribute much more to the communities that surround them.
Our daughter Hilary attends Colgate University in upstate Hamilton, N.Y. It is another outstanding private university. Colgate bought many of the buildings in Hamilton's downtown area and rehabilitated them, moving the university bookstore into the center of the village and filling the downtown with students on a daily basis. The place is booming -- and lovely to boot.
GrowSmart identified Maine's most pressing problems as these: 1) uneven economic growth, 2) a lack of cohesion and priorities in economic development and 3) the high costs of local and state government -- exacerbated by increasing sprawling development, even in slow-growth areas.
To its credit, GrowSmart has made a bold move to address those problems with the help of the Brookings Institution. Their report will be presented right after Labor Day -- a smart timetable that demonstrates another reason for optimism.
This report will be handed out in the heart of the fall political campaign season -- perfect timing to win the commitment of every candidate for the study's recommendations.

Smart Growth by George Smith, Executive Director, Sportsman's Alliance of Maine
He lives in Mount Vernon and can be reached at george@samcef.org.

January 11, 2006


NOTE - This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of the TRC Alliance Team.