"Charting the Course" is written by GrowSmart Maine, a Yarmouth nonprofit that promotes and encourages new ways of thinking about Maine's future. This issue's column is written by Maggie Drummond, GrowSmart's policy director.
Many Mainers can trace our roots back for generations. Some of us are transplants "from away," but we all share one common thread: We live here on purpose. Whether we decided to stay, or we decided to move here from someplace else, we've done it in spite of the fact that this place can be cold, remote, expensive and disorganized.
Maine is one of those places that captures your heart and mind and just won't let go.
If you've walked past the grandeur of city hall in Bath recently, strolled up the historic Main Street in Bridgton, caught a show at the renovated theater in Houlton, or stumbled upon old friends at the Old Post Office Café in Mt. Vernon, you've probably experienced that familiar tug on the soul.
And you've probably spent some time and money in those places as well, supporting the local economy. The fact is that our small towns, historic downtowns and villages, and walkable Main Streets are a valuable and unique asset.
And they are also vulnerable.
Over time, we seem to have lost sight of just how valuable this asset can be as part of an economic development strategy that capitalizes on Maine's unique brand. Virtually every traditional town or city in Maine has lost population over time, as development follows the population shift to rural and suburban communities and increasingly auto-dependent locations.
More recently, the rapid inflation of energy prices has forced some families living in rural communities to spend as much on their cars as they do on their homes. In many cases, employers have had to share this burden with their workers.
We must find a way to reverse these trends. If businesses, households and governments invested more in our traditional Main Streets, village centers and downtowns, we could make more efficient use of our infrastructure and scarce public resources. Instead of spending huge portions of our paychecks at gas stations, Mainers and their employers would have more money to spend in the regional economy. And revitalizing our traditional community centers would also revitalize a key part of Maine's legendary brand.
The private sector is already witnessing revived interest in our downtowns: Even in the midst of a serious downturn in the real estate industry, large mill redevelopment projects are attracting tenants in downtown Biddeford, Saco, Lewiston and Waterville.
With rising transportation costs and growing economic connections with the Boston metropolitan area, there's also a growing interest in "transit-oriented" developments, like the Island Point development being built next to Saco's new train station. Large mixed-use projects are also rising in downtown Freeport and Brunswick in anticipation of expanded passenger rail service, which is expected to begin in 2010.
Unfortunately, public investment lags behind this growing private-sector interest. With the exception of federal funds we receive through the Community Development Block Grant program, funding to improve Maine's downtowns, village centers and Main Streets remains inconsistent from year to year, and is delivered through a web of programs that retain separate criteria in spite of complementary goals: the Municipal Investment Trust Fund, the New Century Fund, the newly-enacted Riverfront Community Bond.
The Land for Maine's Future program, designed to protect and enhance our beautiful landscape, is a great example to follow as we ponder the future of community investments in Maine. Created in 1986, the program has adopted strategic criteria to guide investment, leveraged significant public and private dollars, and has strong public support.
Maine needs a sister program to do exactly this for our community centers — a "Communities for Maine's Future" program. Right now, there is a tremendous volume of applications for community investments. The amount of investment requests is four to five times greater than the available funds. We're simply not getting the job done.
With the recent expansion of the historic preservation tax credit driving redevelopment of historic buildings statewide and rising gas and energy prices curtailing our household budgets, now is the perfect time to pay more attention to Maine's built environment.
We'll be working in the State House this coming year with the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, towns and cities from around the state, preservationists, developers and community revitalization advocates to ensure that Maine is as strategic about protecting our communities as we are about our landscape.
And if we do it right, our quality of life and our economy will be better for it.
Maggie Drummond can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.