True or not, Maine has cultivated a nice image as a state with a stagnant economy. Even Lewiston-Auburn, with its catchphrase “It’s Happening Here” and the hundreds of millions of dollars in private investment in the last decade, is still searching for a vibrant economic future.

Quality of place, Maine’s natural landscape and our New England-style villages and downtowns are our calling cards. Indeed, they distinguish us in the world, but not necessarily enough to lure enough people and money in quantities to change our condition.

Of course, my recent pitch in this column for a casino to revitalize downtown Lewiston-Auburn is one of several outside-of-the-box approaches to bring significant new energy to the local and state economy.

Maybe with all of this searching for a new direction, we might be well-served taking a 21st-century look at why L-A was successful in the 19th and 20th centuries. The reason, of course, was the Industrial Revolution and our manufacturing and heavy industries.

Suffice it to say, industrialization had its drawbacks – limited or non-existent environmental regulations and poor working conditions. But it had positives, like reliance on rail to transport materials, use of natural resources and locations in or near service-center communities

So what about this idea: Let’s build New England’s first “green industry corridor” in the Androscoggin River valley with sustainable industries, utilizing natural resources in a responsible way, linked together in green business parks and each of those parks linked by a freight and passenger rail network.

The most exciting part is many of the key pieces are in play, from both an existing business and infrastructure perspective and the political will to move away from non-renewable sources of raw materials and energy.

In this region of Maine, pulp and paper mills still exist and are relatively strong, given the current state of the overall economy. Those communities have a skilled workforce and rail corridors that connect to the Port of Auburn (the intermodal rail facility), as do trucking firms that currently serve those mills.

Beyond the mills, Auburn hosts a paper recycling plant that turns used materials into fresh pulp for new products. Storage facilities for ethanol and conversion of local trucking fleets to biofuels is happening and at a growing rate.

While it has been discussed under the radar, a technology is evolving that would allow kraft mills (like Verso and NewPage) to integrate a new manufacturing process to create new, valued added products like ethanol, plastics, and other high-margin chemicals.

This research is being led out of UMaine in Orono, but is ripe for the picking in this region if pursued aggressively.

If we envision that the two mills, in Jay and Rumford, could be converted to “forest biorefineries,” making pulp, paper and these new value-added products, how might that ripple throughout the region?

Assuming we all still use travel mugs, lawn chairs or many other everyday items made from plastic, perhaps rather than petroleum-based plastics, new plants could open in Maine to make them from wood-derived plastics.

Ethanol is a growing fuel alternative and additive, predominantly made from corn. With the movement to build tank farms in Auburn to handle and transport ethanol, the industrial park in Auburn (and perhaps Poland) could house these emerging industries to connect to Jay and Rumford and supply wood-based ethanol nationally.

This is not farfetched, given the current mindset in national and state politics. If Maine could advocate for national policies to favor emerging green industries, favors wood-based products over use of a food staple like corn and favors recycled or renewable products, we might be able to overcome poor business perceptions and get our industries off the ground.

Jonathan LaBonte, of New Auburn, is a columnist for the Sun Journal and an Androscoggin County Commissioner. E-mail: [email protected]

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