FARMINGTON – The challenge: With more people moving to the state and its rural areas, how can Maine grow without losing its unique character along the way?

Alan Caron, president of GrowSmart Maine and Mark Muro, policy director of Brookings Institution, listened to people’s comments Wednesday morning at the University of Maine at Farmington. They discussed challenges the region faces and opportunities available to grow in a sustainable way while preserving the quality of life and character of the area.

The meeting was one of nine being held around the state this week to gather input for a study.

GrowSmart Maine, a statewide nonprofit organization in Yarmouth, hired Brookings Institution of Washington, D.C., last fall to prepare a study exploring the connection between the state’s future economic prosperity, the character and quality of Maine’s communities and environment, the cost and design of its government and the dispersal of the state’s population into the rural countryside – known as sprawl.

The study, along with a series of recommendations, will be released in a “blueprint for action” in September.

It is a five-year project with the first year focused on producing the study and the next four years to implement recommendations.

When he was young, Caron said, there were 400,000 people in rural Maine, mostly farmers. Now there are 700,000 rural Mainers, many who are commuters.

It used to cost $3 million to bus kids to school, he said; now it cost a $100 million.

Many people assume Maine is slow growing, relatively stable, possibly stagnant, Muro said, but in recent years the population in the state has grown, doubling in many counties with more out-of-state people moving in.

There is also a shift to a completely different economy, Muro said, with manufacturing jobs declining, giving way to a service-based economy while natural resource jobs in the state’s forests, farms and oceans shrink.

Issues raised Wednesday ranged from lack of public transportation and high cost of gasoline to funding education and investing in people. Other concerns included property tax reform, burdens on service centers, state and federal unfunded mandates and use of natural resources, such as wind versus preserving the beauty of an area.

Higher tax rates, congestion, increased housing costs and other factors are moving people toward rural areas, several said.

You drive all these folks out because of taxes and other factors and then they need new schools, the volunteer fire department is no longer enough and they want more services, Muro said.

There is also an influx of older people moving in and people moving to the state to retire.

Maine’s population became the fourth oldest, surpassing Florida, in 2004, Caron said.

Fred Hardy of New Sharon, a county commissioner and former dairy farmer, said the simple way to control sprawl would be to make agriculture more profitable.

People concerned with sprawl don’t have land, he said.

“A lot of people moved to Franklin County because they like the way it was,” he said. “I liked it the way it was 40 years ago.”

Mary Sylvester of UMF, said there are many groups that have formed partnerships and are working together.

“We depend on each other … none of us would be strong without each other,” Sylvester said.