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Maine's centuries-long history of development that's guided by extremely local decisions may need to adjust to a more regional view in order for the state, and municipalities, to gain better economic footing, speakers at the GrowSmart Maine 2020 Annual Summit said Thursday.
The theme of the event, held at six locations across the state to accommodate COVID-19 restrictions, was "Flexing the Power of Home Rule: A Path Toward Regional Solutions."
Common sense says "regionalism makes sense," said Jeff Levine, who moderated discussion with the two keynote speakers, Colin Woodard, a Portland Press Herald reporter who has written extensively about Maine's history and how it's shaped the state, and Anthony Flint, a senior fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, a think tank headquartered in Cambridge, Mass. Levine is Portland's former planning director and now a planning lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Woodard, who traced the history of Maine from its dependence on Massachusetts when it was "a colony of a colony," to the present day, when that history, despite forging independence with statehood in 1820, also gave Maine an inferiority complex "where we can't think too big because all will come to naught."
He said that kind of thinking is unfortunate, as "Maine's no longer an economic backwater."
Flint, whose home city of Brookline, Mass., population 25,000, still uses the town meeting form of government, said New England can be mired in traditions that no longer make sense. "It's been kind of a vehicle for avoiding change," he said of the town meeting.
In Massachusetts, a two-thirds majority vote is required for issues that affect things like housing, and it makes it difficult to solve problems that don't only affect one community. "It's an example of how local control can work against us," he said. Housing, transportation and other issues aren't limited to a town or city's borders, he said. Still, regional planning "has struggled to get traction."
The COVID-19 pandemic has underlined how states in a region can work together, Flint said. "What's become clear is just how meaningless state borders are in managing the virus," he said.
Flint said, too, that there's a disconnect between people wanting to solve issues like systemic racism, but wanting to look only at their town and city, often relying on a "not in my backyard" strategy.
"After the George Floyd murder, people asked 'What can we do?' One answer is to stop opposing multi-family housing units in your community," he said. "It's a matter of connecting the dots," to how Black people and other minorities have been prevented from accumulating wealth, been kept from living in certain communities and struggle to get out of the hole those restrictions put them in.
"There's a need for more options," Flint said. Those options, which affect people across town and city borders, include not only more multi-family housing, opening a community to more people, but shared equity in a community, conservation land trusts and other solutions. "They should all be in the mix."
Woodard said one issue in Maine is there is no convener on the state level to manage regional partnerships, and there isn't a context of regional cooperation in the state.
He said that the extent of regionalism would depend on the issue, for instance studying rail service would be different than zoning policy regarding box stores.
He also said that "arranged marriages," like the state's not-always-successful regional school alignment, don't work when there's a disparity between the communities involved. "What works is when [towns and cities] form their own alliances."
The conference also included break-out sessions at all six locations, where participants discussed home rule and regionalism in the context of their part of the state. Some of those conclusions will be featured at a virtual meeting next Thursday, a first for the annual conference.
GrowSmart itself has forged partnerships that give its work greater scope, Executive Director Nancy Smith said in opening remarks. The organization, which promotes growth that's sustainable and keeps the state's character, is one of the partners on the Local Wood Work initiative, which promotes forest sustainability and local wood products. It also is partnering with the Snow Pond Center in Sidney on a regional economic plan based on arts and culture, and is working with the Maine Broadband Coalition, among other projects.
She said the organization plans to focus more on racial equity and climate change. "These are not silos, they're woven into everything we do," she said.
This year's summit was a major departure from last year's, where more than 200 people attended in person in Biddeford. But those in the organization said the new elements added value, while the traditional elements, which also included walking tours to view smart growth in action, remained.
"Even during this pandemic we were able to keep two unique components of our event; pairing two keynote speakers and allowing time for discussion between them and with the audience, and the City Experiences of walking tours at to explore smart growth across Maine,” said Ethan Boxer-Macomber, chair of the GrowSmart board.
Boxer-Macomber attended the Machias session, and said that a board member was at each venue "to ensure GrowSmart is connected across the state." Besides Machias and Biddeford, locations Hallowell, Sidney, Bangor and Presque Isle. GrowSmart partnered on the remote locations with Norther Maine Development Corp., Eastern Maine Development Corp., Sunrise County Economic Council, the Kennebec Valley Council of Governments, and Heart of Biddeford.
GrowSmart also announced its annual Smart Growth Awards Thursday. The awards recognize diverse activities that contribute to smart growth, and its benefits.
Outstanding Project Awards went to:
Port Property Management, for its redevelopment of 82 Hanover St., in Portland. Tom Watson, who was named to the Mainebiz Next List earlier this month, is CEO.
The project redeveloped a former Portland public works maintenance building, described as "a brownfield site in a state of blight and disrepair," into a "vibrant, pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use commercial center."
Great Falls Construction, of Gorham, for its Station Square development. The five-story new construction is on the cite for a former lumber yard in downtown Gorham, and has 33 residential and six commercial units.
Bangor Savings Bank Operations Center/CWS Architects. The new campus, on the Penobscot River waterfront in downtown Bangor, came from a vision to invest in the community and serve as a catalyst for restoring Bangor’s prosperity, both integrated with environmental responsibility, GrowSmart said.
Demonstrable Commitment to Smart Growth awards went to:
Moosehead Lake Region Economic Development Corp., which, in partnership with public and private community stakeholders, designed and implemented a master plan for the region.
Raise-Op Housing Cooperative, in Lewiston, which aims to operate safe and affordable housing that’s controlled by residents.
Attorney and planner Mark Eyerman, who has worked with more than 30 municipalities, on smart growth projects.