December 18, 2013

MAINE STREAM: With its beauty, Washington County should be an economic powerhouse

George Smith

What a Christmas present it would be! No income tax. No sales tax. In all of Washington County.

The FreeME initiative proposed for our poorest county by the Maine Heritage Policy Center might even get me to move there. My great-grandfather kept the light at West Quoddy Head in Lubec for more than 30 years, and my Mom grew up there. I feel at home there.

So the FreeMe initiative grabbed my attention. But Colin Woodard’s excellent examination of this issue in the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel on Dec. 5 brought me back to reality. It ain’t gonna happen.

The sad saga of our state’s easternmost county — stunningly beautiful and desperately poor — features a drop of 25 percent in its population in the past 25 years, reflective of the fact the county suffers the state’s highest rates of unemployment and poverty.

I noted the hyperbole of Chris Gardner, a Washington County commissioner, who told Woodard, “We’ve been retreating through the forest for 40 years, and all it’s done is get us lost. We need to stop, start digging foxholes and go on the economic offensive.” No big surprise, Gardner likes the FreeMe initiative. “Washington County is dying and we need to embrace new initiatives,” he said.

Perhaps Gardner has forgotten that Route 1 in Washington County is littered with new initiatives. My favorite was an exceptionally astute 70-page report with recommendations created by David Flanagan, the former president and CEO of Central Maine Power Co., and a guy who is well-experienced in both the political and business worlds.

Flanagan’s plan was prepared in 2005 for Gov. John Baldacci, who ignored it, even though it was remarkably frank about the county’s problems and offered some compelling and thoughtful ideas. Perhaps it was just too honest.

Flanagan cataloged declines in everything from tourism to papermaking, the doubling of energy costs, a terrible transportation system with no airport or rail service, no conference and banquet facilities, and high taxes and health-care costs.

About the latter, Flanagan was prescient. “Unless Maine more effectively contains health care costs to stay at least parallel with overall American trends, all the positives of other public policies can be seriously compromised or even wiped out by this one cost factor.”

I can only note that in the once-bustling town of Lubec, the largest employer today is the medical center.

When my grandmother Searles was packing sardines in Lubec, she never would have imagined the complete collapse of that fishery and industry. Flanagan noted that herring was “the core industry with its fleets and canneries” that “sustained the Washington County economy from the 1850s until the 1950s.”

Flanagan did step on a lot of toes. From state water-withdrawal rules to the federal endangered species listing of Atlantic salmon, he showed demonstrably negative impacts about a range of Downeast agriculture, aquaculture and other industries.

It may be time, however, to dust off Flanagan’s recommendations. They were not pie-in-the-sky dreams like abolishing taxes. I remember them as both remarkable and doable. Alas, I can’t find them. Perhaps Dave will weigh in with some of those ideas.

Today Lubec and its Canadian neighbor Campobello Island are isolated, suffering a long and discouraging economic decline, lacking the young people necessary to maintain local schools, wondering what the future holds. Because these two places are in different countries, however, a seemingly impossible barrier to cooperation and shared prosperity exists.

There are two good examples of how our countries currently cooperate here. Roosevelt International Park is advertised as “a symbol of the close U.S.-Canadian relationship.” FDR’s summer home on Campobello, and its nearby 2,000 acres of ocean-front forests and quiet beaches, is managed by a commission composed of both Americans and Canadians and preserved through the commitment of both countries.

And my brother Gordon participated in the first Bay of Fundy International Marathon last June, running from West Quoddy Light to Campobello’s East Quoddy Light and returning to finish on Lubec’s Water Street, passing over the International Bridge and through customs twice. I’m sure our ancestors were smiling on him that day.

A few years ago, a teenage photographer from East Vassalboro asked his mother to drive him through the morning’s darkness to Lubec’s West Quoddy Head Lighthouse so he could photograph the sun rising over the nearby Canadian islands on the first day of the year. As I write this column, I am looking, longingly, at Alec Hartman’s amazing photo, the ground covered in snow, the first rays of the rising sun shining brightly through the glass at the top of lighthouse’s unique red and white striped tower.

A place this beautiful should be an economic powerhouse.

George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon 04352, or georgesmithmaine@gmail.com. Read more of Smith’s writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.
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