Economy needs protection from the elements

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Maine’s economic health depends on the weather.

This sentiment, delivered Thursday in Auburn by noted University of Southern Maine economist Charlie Colgan, is no bombshell. It caused nary a ripple through the Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce audience to which Colgan spoke. It’s actually pretty obvious.

Doesn’t make the fact any less striking, however.

Few people are more highly regarded in their field than Colgan. The state’s former top economist, his annual economic forecasts are digested as gospel. He’s predicting 2007 to be “modestly promising” for Maine, as the state’s recurring mid-decade slump fades away.

That’s as long as the sun warms the summer and snow blankets the winter, though. “We were lucky in 2006 with exceptional weather,” Colgan said of Maine’s tourism industry, which boomed with 6 percent growth in lodging sales last summer, thanks to eight weeks of clear skies and piercing sunshine.

Restaurants and other tourism-related industries were also buoyed by summertime’s atmospheric bounty; Colgan’s predictions for 2007 are similar, but more conservative, with gains expected to about halve the increases of 2006’s that rose with the mercury.

Whither Maine’s weather is one of several questions for the state’s economy, joining perennials like housing, debt, inflation and – the most recent culprit – energy costs. There’s reason for short-term optimism, but the vulnerability of Maine’s economy to uncontrollable forces are a concern.

Overt dependence on perhaps the world’s most unpredictable factor, the weather, is frightening. Maine’s key economic indicators should be interest rates, unemployment, housing starts and real wages, not the Doppler radar.

Maine needs to attract, and retain, jobs and industries impervious to the barbs of a bobbing barometer. Retail, a sector that’s exploded in L-A, is projected to follow national trends into a downturn in 2007, Colgan said. Half the coast already flies south for the winter, hanging signs in dusty windows saying, “Think spring!”

The foundation jobs are also fleeing. State and local officials in Standish are straining to save the latest casualty, industrial sensor maker Sensata, from cutting its workforce from more than 200 to maybe 25, and taking those jobs to the Dominican Republic. (Where the weather is always good.)

And there’s tragic irony in Osram Sylvania brightening the Bates Mill to film a pricey commercial; the lightbulb maker is another Maine refugee, shuttering plants in Bangor and Waldoboro recently, and sending many jobs to the Czech Republic. (Sylvania also located in Standish, at the site of the closing Sensata plant.)

Like the weather forecast, though, Colgan’s forecast could be imprecise. “I’d like to be able to say Maine’s economy is like our [recent] weather, sunny and warm, ” he joked to the chamber during his presentation.

He could, if Maine can attract industries protected from the elements, and insulate those already here.

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