I love Maine, but Maine is in trouble.
Forbes has come out with their annual rankings of “Best States for Business and Careers” and Maine is ranked 50th—dead last. We can argue over the rankings, dispute whether we’re in better shape than Rhode Island whose unemployment rate exceeds ours or whether our quality of life ranking should be higher than Massachusetts—all are debatable points. In this election year the politicians got to blame each side but the bottom line remains the same. Like it or not, Maine has become a lousy place to grow a business or start a career. Few can argue this painful point.
How we got here is of lesser importance to what we need to do to get ourselves out of this situation. Before the business leaders, politicians and economists lay out their latest blueprint for success, we need to come to grips with the reality that maybe we have resigned ourselves to last place. Maybe we’re OK with having an anti-business reputation. Maybe we want to return to a time when our state was simply a quaint, peaceful place to live and raise a family. While there is something to be said about that bygone era, those days (unfortunately) are gone. I am not also suggesting we abandon our values or ideals, nor am I saying that Mainers like languishing at the bottom of this business ranking. Few can be happy as our manufacturing industry slowly disappears and our fishermen struggle to make a living. No one wants to see our young people fleeing the state in droves to find jobs in their chosen careers. But this is not a new phenomenon. Maine has been bleeding for a long time and little has been done to remedy it.
We talk about the need for an expanded tax base to offer badly needed economic relief, but little is done. In fact, as a citizenry, we constantly put up roadblocks whenever “big business” from away looks to come to Maine or when existing businesses seek to expand. Maine was the first state in the nation to pass a “Big Box law” forcing companies like Home Depot and Lowe’s to prove that their company would not harm the existing local business. It is this kind of anti-development that actually threatens all businesses and sends a clear message that we are opposed to growth.
We need to be attracting new businesses and keeping all the businesses we have, thus generating and retaining good paying jobs and revenues. There are many examples of companies who have recently been attracted to Maine including Southwest Airlines, Presque Isle’s Balance BPO, and Scarborough’s Plum Choice. We need more. However, in York County where I reside, I can quickly cite three situations where businesses tried to open or expand and met fierce resistance from the community. Poland Springs was turned away by the community when it sought to purchase water rights from the Kennebunk, Kennebunkport Wells Water District. Stop & Shop opened its first Maine store in Kennebunk only after years of lawsuits and protests from some local residents and business owners. Then it closed two years later. Developers have repeatedly tried to open a casino in Sanford before voters turned them away. All promised new jobs. All would have generated badly needed revenues. All were bloodied by trying to do business in Maine.
We can debate the merits of each project, but the message remains clear—certain businesses are not welcome, at least “not in my back yard.” It is this attitude that overshadows our state and sends a clear message to other businesses. When executives hear about these incidents, when they pick up Forbes Magazine, they will think a long time before considering Maine, particularly when other states are actively rolling out the welcome wagon. Why go where you are not wanted?
There are consequences to this attitude. As Forbes noted, “growth prospects have deteriorated relative to the rest of the country” and “job prospects will remain bleak and business closings will continue.” As a citizenry we cannot accept this. Frankly, we cannot afford this. We need bold and decisive action. The new governor will need to layout a vision to reverse this trend. But no matter what he pushes, if communities do not embrace economic growth, little will happen.
Tourism in Maine has been our bread and butter. The state’s beauty and natural resources makes us the ideal vacation destination and has been the engine fueling much of our economy. We need to expand this brand. If we are a great place to visit, we’re even a better place to live and start a business. We can build on this and encourage companies to come here for the quality of life for all their employees. We can attract good businesses that are consistent with our values and do not threaten our way of life.
Much needs to be done and the Forbes ranking points to where we should focus. We need to reduce the cost of doing business. We need to streamline the regulatory permitting process. We need tax relief. We need to invest in our infrastructure. At the same time, we need to take care of our people. We need to invest in our young people by supporting and expanding our college and community college system. We must also expand our training in the skills and trades. Health insurance has become cost prohibitive, so we need to reduce the costs by increasing competition and expanding the number of insurers in the state. When we demand change, when we actively support and encourage change, then our new governor and legislature will follow.
As a state, we have to do things differently. We have the ability to compete with anyone—but we first must have the will to do what it takes. We can do this without jeopardizing our way of life, our natural resources, and our state’s natural beauty. It is not a zero sum game. We can have it all without sacrificing “the way life should be.”
Maine is a wonderful place to live and it could be a great place to do business. We have much to offer. But we first must change. We continue to fall behind the rest of the country. As long as we stay at the bottom, we will continue to suffer economically and our children will have no choice but to move away. It does not have to be that way. We need to wake up.