Dark skies: Directs the State Planning Office to review existing commercial outdoor lighting standards and make recommendations on language to limit light pollution. The SPO is also required to identify policy options for promoting outdoor lighting standards for commercial development. (LD 383)
Director of Recreational Access and Landowner Relations: This bill would permanently establish the position of Director of Recreational Access and Landowner Relations in the Department of Conservation, subject to sufficient funding. (LD 863)
Status: Passed in Senate, awaiting House vote
Bunch of bonds: This bill would authorize nearly $300 million in infrastructure, water quality and environmental protection bonds, including $18 million to recapitalize the Land for Maine's Future program. (LD 913)
Status: Referred to Committee on Appropriations and Financial Affairs
Farmland protection: This bill would implement the recommendations of the Commission to Study the Protection of Farms and Farmland. It would establish a process for the voluntary designation of farms as "Farming for Maine" farms, establish the Farmland Preservation Fund and direct SPO to develop a model farmland protection ordinance, among other provisions. (LD 1133)
Status: Passed, awaiting governor's signature
Comp plan development: This bill changes the site location of development laws to favor development in locally designated growth areas as identified in municipal comprehensive plans. (LD 1268)
Status: Passed, awaiting governor's signature
Quality of place investment strategy: The governor's bill requiring regional economic development offices to create regional quality of place investment strategies, and directing them to allow the Maine Quality of Place Council to coordinate those efforts. (LD 1389)
Status: Unfinished business
In March 2007, Gov. John Baldacci signed an executive order creating the Governor's Council on Maine's Quality of Place, a group of state officials, academics and policymakers tasked with defining and preserving Maine's brand. The state's brand had entered the policy debate in earnest the previous year, when the Brookings Institution's influential report "Charting Maine's Future" cited Maine's "globally known 'brand' built on images of livable communities, stunning scenery and great recreational opportunities."
Over the next 15 years and beyond, Maine's distinct brand will arguably be the foundation of our economy — as we compete globally for brilliant business minds who, because of communications advances, are able to work anywhere; as we expand our reputation as a tourism and outdoor sporting destination; and as we work to offer top-notch education in entrepreneurship and quality-of-life careers like community planning.
"I really think that over the coming 15 to 25 years, our attitude to this issue is going to make the difference in terms of whether we grow our economy," says Richard Barringer, chair of the public policy and management program at the University of Southern Maine's Muskie School of Public Service and chair of the quality of place council. "Our population is about to stop growing, our work force is about to stop growing. If we're going to attract and keep the workers that we need who are higher skilled, all the research about how that is going to happen indicates place is going to make the difference."
In honor of our all-important brand, Mainebiz looked at examples of leading initiatives in three areas of the statewide quality of place effort — downtown revitalization, education and land conservation — to find out what's going on today to protect Maine's tomorrow.
Standish: A study in downtown renewal
Standish Town Councilor Carolyn Biegel wants her downtown to look like it did 20 years ago when she first visited it with her husband, who grew up there. Biegel recalls walking around Standish Corner, as the center of town along Route 25 here is known, which bustled with locals visiting the post office, an ice cream shop and boutiques. Today, Biegel says, "if you walk anywhere up there you're taking your life in your hands."
The 19th century buildings in Standish Corner are now mostly vacant. The post office has moved to a mini-mall off of Route 25. The IGA grocery store is gone, one of two gas stations has disappeared. Only a hardware store and general market remain. While the population of Standish has grown by around 20%, from about 7,700 people in 1990 to 9,900 in 2007, the most recent data available from the U.S. Census Bureau, the town estimates 73% of new development since the early 1990s has happened in its outlying areas, in a rapid bleeding of the downtown that is a textbook definition of sprawl: The more people moved away from the center of town, the less businesses wanted to locate in that center. The quieter the downtown got, the less appealing it was to visitors and businesses alike.
By 2006, when Standish revamped the comprehensive plan to try and reverse the sprawl, Biegel, chair of the Standish Corner Implementation Committee, says all four buildings at the intersection in the center of Standish Corner were abandoned.
Standish's struggle caught the eye of Maine's arch-enemy of sprawl, the Yarmouth nonprofit GrowSmart Maine. Since GrowSmart was founded in 2002, it has been preoccupied with altering state policy to stem sprawl, its most visible success to date being the "Charting Maine's Future" report it commissioned that helped launch the discussion on quality of place's role in the Maine economy. But GrowSmart wanted to descend from its theoretical heights to prove its anti-sprawl concepts work on the ground level. In 2007, it solicited applications for a "model town" whose growth — past, present and future — it could analyze. Standish, fresh from endorsing a comp plan revision that dwelt heavily on focusing development in the downtown, was chosen. In May, Standish held the last of three public workshops on what residents think Standish Corner should look like. Residents were given handheld electronic voting devices and asked to rank proposed uses of Standish Corner. To help them visualize their options, GrowSmart created aerial and street-level mockups of Standish Corner as it could be in 20 years — they included a view if current zoning remains unchanged, with a downtown dominated by large parking lots and commercial buildings, and another if zoning was altered according to the residents' feedback, with dense residential and commercial development and a network of narrow linking roads.
"These visualizations really helped a lot," says Christian McNeil, GrowSmart's communications director and a columnist for Mainebiz. "It put these wonky zoning terms into plans people could understand."
Officials in Standish agree the next step will be the tough part — actually changing zoning and passing town ordinances that promote development that makes Standish's downtown look more like the walkable American centers of the past. The town council is discussing implementing form-based codes, a beauty-first concept in which a development is considered not according to functionality, but rather how it will look next to neighboring buildings and the scale of streets and blocks. Standish would be the first municipality in the state to implement those progressive development directives.
"It'd be a huge change," Biegel says. "It's like recreating a traditional New England town."
Education: Creating the movers and shakers
Making Maine's brand lucrative for the state involves not only protecting the landscape and rejuvenating our old-fashioned downtowns, but training our work force to lead areas of the economy poised for growth. But while Maine does offer programs in entrepreneurship, tourism and community planning, the organized effort the quality of place council has called for has yet to materialize.
In Maine, according to a 2008 report by the State Planning Office for the Council on Maine's Quality of Place, entrepreneurship programming is limited. There are only 16 entrepreneurship programs in middle and high schools in Maine, courses and certificate programs offered at three community colleges and five University of Maine System campuses, and three entrepreneurial courses offered by adult education programs in the state.
Entrepreneurship education — which teaches basic business skills like marketing, money management and product development — isn't overseen by any state agency, and so the SPO's description of its breadth is perfunctory.
"Currently, there is no single source listing all of the entrepreneurial education and training programs around the state," wrote the report's author, economist Amanda Rector. "Information about the different programs is sparse, and difficult to track down … Coordination of these programs across the state would likely make it easier for those interested in taking advantage of entrepreneurial training to do so and would provide opportunities for tracking the outcomes of these programs."
The most developed entrepreneurship program in the state is the University of Southern Maine's Center for Entrepreneurship, which holds workshops around the state for established and aspiring entrepreneurs and supports entrepreneurship courses at USM. Launched in 1996, the center does not receive any funding from the university system and instead operates entirely on revenue from grants and workshop and course fees. This means the operating budget, according to the university, ranges wildly from a high of $200,000 in a good year to less than $50,000 in a tight year. Still, the center plugs along. In 2008, the center created the state's first concentration in entrepreneurship. According to center Director Valarie Lamont, about 20 students are enrolled in the concentration, which is part of USM's business major.
"[Entrepreneurship education] needs to be accepted and recognized as an important part of Maine's economy," says Lamont. "But I think we are much further along than we were 10 years ago. We have reached out to provide basic business skills and certainly more students are taking entrepreneurship courses at not only this campus, but all campuses in the University of Maine System."
Council on Maine's Quality of Place Chair Barringer has his eye not on entrepreneurship education, but on tourism education.
"I tend to think of the education that's needed around quality of place is in educating people that we don't need to be a low-cost provider," says Barringer of tourism education. "There are isolated incidents around the state of such programs, but there really needs to be a comprehensive strategy among community colleges to address the issue."
Barringer applauds programs that train students for high-level tourism jobs, like Southern Maine Community College's culinary arts school and the University of Maine at Machias' recreation and tourism management program, which, since it was launched as an undergraduate major in 1978, has graduated close to 400 students. Many of those graduates go on to launch ecotourism businesses, manage state and national parks and oversee municipal parks and recreation departments.
The University of Maine System appears to be listening to the quality of place proponents. Richard Pattenaude, chancellor of the system, has directed faculty and staff charged with reviewing the system's financial, structural and academic organization to consider tourism and hospitality and community planning as possible new academic focus areas. The "New Challenges, New Directions" initiative is intended to ensure the system's long-term financial stability, and suggestions from the initiative's task forces are expected in a report due at the end of this month.
Bangor and buddies: Collaborating on a vision
The appeal of a scenic vista or a great country road doesn't stop at the town line, and so making economic development efforts regional is key. Bangor and its area neighbors want to make good on this truth, at least when it comes to conserving valued natural assets. In July, the Maine office of the Trust for Public Land plans to release the Penobscot Valley Community Greenprint report, a summary of the unique work it's been doing with Bangor and 11 area towns and cities to identify the best uses of open space and map it using geographic information systems, or GIS, technology. TPL has conducted other regional land-use analyses around the country, but this is the first of its kind in Maine.
"There's this feeling about Maine's quality of place, but in order to get at that so you can do something about it you have to define it," says Jim Gooch, the project's coordinator at TPL. "You have to fill an empty vessel. And what we're trying to do with the greenprint is fill that empty vessel."
The Penobscot Valley greenprint coalition includes towns as small as Bradley — population 1,339 — and the service center Bangor, which houses about 32,000 people. In a series of public meetings held in March 2008, residents were asked to discuss the natural assets they liked best in their area, and why. Residents talked about walking downtown, for example, or the view from Chick Hill. TPL then coordinated that feedback with similar information from 600 area telephone surveys, land-use directives in all of the area's comprehensive plans, related asset-based studies from groups like the Eastern Maine Development Corp. and the Penobscot Valley Council of Governments, and interviews with 30 of the area's most prominent residents. A group of town officials and activists was then asked to rank various uses of the assets that emerged as the most valued, and from this ranking TPL will create a series of maps of natural assets, color-coded according to their most highly ranked uses. The purpose is to help the coalition decide what to do to protect those valued uses.
Bangor City Manager Ed Barrett, a member of the Governor's Council on Maine's Quality of Place, approached TPL to convince the nonprofit land conservation group to take on the Bangor area greenprint. Over his 22 years in the city manager seat, Barrett has watched regional cooperation become increasingly vital to the economic health of Bangor, Brewer and the surrounding towns. Gooch and Barrett agree regional cooperation is easy when it comes to protecting a nice view, but gets a lot tougher when towns and cities are asked to collaborate on business attraction or area services. "Part of the initial motivation was to create a form for regional collaboration that we didn't feel really existed by creating a forum around something people could see eye-to-eye on," explains Gooch.
Problem is, how do you convince municipalities used to competing with each other for new businesses that working together could salvage the unique qualities that attract those businesses to the region in the first place? Barrett hopes the collaboration around something the municipalities tend to agree on will be enhanced by a regional economic development effort launched in April by the governor, Mobilize Maine. Mobilize Maine is intended to make the quality of place initiatives discussed at the policy level a reality around the state by empowering the six economic development districts to coordinate regional takes on asset-based development and economic development strategies. The Penobscot Valley Community Greenprint, and its as-yet-untested proposals, may therefore act as a timely indicator of whether this independent state is ready to warm to cooperation.
"It's up to the communities at the end of the day to take this information we've prepared for them and apply it to their decision-making, and that's going to be much harder," Gooch says. "It's going to take years to figure out if we're on the right path and if we're really creating something or it's another dead end, but I'm hopeful."
Sara Donnelly, former Mainebiz managing editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.