The Native Conservative

October 17, 2012

GEORGE SMITH: Some success, many shortfalls since 2006 Brookings Report

George Smith

If Maine wants to grow -- smartly or any other way -- then a new look back at the 2006 Brookings Report, "Charting Maine's Future," is essential.

That report, prepared for Grow Smart Maine, outlined a strategy that generated excitement all over Maine and gained widespread support from Kittery to Fort Kent.

Ah, but was the plan implemented? Good question!

Grow Smart Maine's executive director, Nancy Smith, and others presented the answer to that question on Sept. 26 at a Portland news conference. "Charting Maine's Future: Making Headway" is their impressive new report, reminding us of the key recommendations in the original report, noting our progress -- or lack thereof -- on those recommendations, and pointing the way forward. You can read the entire report at www.growsmartmaine.org.

By way of disclosure, I participated in the process that led to the Brookings Report and then joined the Grow Smart Board for a few years. No longer a board member, I served on the Advisory Committee to help create the new progress report.

The Brookings Report got exceptional attention and support because the smart people at the Brookings Institution, all of them "from away," listened to thousands of Mainers and incorporated what they learned into their recommendations.

"Brookings reflected on information that was gathered, rather than telling towns what they wanted. This is a subtlety but made a great difference; past efforts assume that towns are not experts on their own desires," said Mary Kate Reny, a community leader in the Damariscotta region and executive at my favorite Maine store, R.H. Reny.

The Brookings Report suggested a three-pronged strategy of investments in a place-based, innovation-focused economy, reductions in government with the savings reinvested in economic development and tax cuts, and the revitalization of Maine's towns and cities, including directing growth away from rural lands.

As Bruce Katz outlines in the foreword to the new report, "The Action plan recommended that the state pursue areas with focus and discipline: invest in its promising industry clusters, improve efficiency in the delivery of regional and local services, and revitalize and strengthen its distinctive communities."

Katz says that despite the recession, Maine has "many success stories," but, "we all know that there is much work still to be done."

Fortunately for us, the new report doesn't give us a grade score -- because, as the report makes plain, we fell far short of the goal. There's a lot to like in this new report, however, filled with our success stories.

My favorite tells about the collaborative marketing effort of four historic inns in Rockland. The owners of these four inns figured out that they could grow their market by working together, something that is rare in any Maine industry. Another story features Barrels Market in Waterville, leading that community toward local foods and healthier lifestyles.

One of the most important recommendations in the Brookings Report called for support of traditional land uses, including fishing, farming and forestry. Since the report was published, 17 working waterfronts were protected on the coast (with six more in progress), and 239,824 acres of working forests got permanent conservation easements using federal money and funds from the Land for Maine's Future program. LMF also provided money to protect 14 farms totaling 2,858 acres with permanent agricultural conservation easements.

I really appreciate the section of the new report titled: "What We Learned." Six lessons are offered:

* Local independence is cultural, historic and not to be ignored.

* Government is not always the most effective change agent.

* One state, diverse people.

* Mainers are cautious.

* Investment requires sustained commitment.

* Rome wasn't built in a day, and it's still there.

On Tuesday, Grow Smart offers its Summit 2012, to talk about all of this. The very interesting daylong program is open to all, with registrations accepted online at Grow Smart's website or by calling 699-4330.

The progress we've made toward the original report's recommendations will inspire some, but I am most hopeful that this latest report will stimulate another look at those recommendations and a renewed effort to achieve them.

Laurie LaChance, former president of the Maine Development Foundation and new president of Thomas College, said it best.

The new report notes, "Mainers are so accustomed to adversity that we seem to expect it. It brings to mind the song by Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra, 'I've been down so long it feels like up'."

To which LaChance responded, "Mainers are frugal, fair and humble."

And, I might add, very tired of being so far down it feels like up.

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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