Paper mills are closing. The auto industry is suffering. Storefronts are vacant.

And federal stimulus money – projected to boost the economy – is mostly earmarked for closing budget gaps in health care and education.

With the economy struggling, and taxpayers at wits end, a simple question should arise: What is the cost effective strategy to grow our economy?

Limiting the discussion to Maine, of course, does not mean that outside forces beyond our control cannot be considered. In fact, they may be central to where we go as a state.

This recession and the collapse of the financial system will reshape the landscape for financing growth in ways we have not yet begun to understand. At the core of the financial meltdown was the residential housing bubble that had developed over the previous decade, meaning that whatever “new world order” forms, financing for housing will have changed.

Housing financing is likely to be less available than in previous generations, which means we may reconsider the notion that renting isn’t so bad after all. Renting is more affordable means for having shelter, though not the ATM some in the last few years made their houses. Sometimes, renting a comparable-sized residence is cheaper than a mortgage. Lower payments means more in your pockets to save, invest, or to spend locally.

With renting and a steady supply of quality rental units in our communities comes another critical tool for the 21st-century economy; mobility. Young entrepreneurs, who can take their creativity and small businesses with them, may be lured to the beauty of Maine’s landscape.

Yet these young entrepreneurs, or even families who value living in a community setting, are often greeted with a harsh reality in many of Maine’s older communities.

The housing stock is poor, sidewalks are often in disrepair, green space is lacking and some of the breathtaking historic buildings have boarded up windows.

Visit Norway, Rumford, Livermore Falls, Lewiston, Auburn, Lisbon Falls and many downtowns and villages in central and western Maine and this is the reality.

There is interest among key stakeholders to change that, but resources are limited.

As the debate about additional stimulus packages, and our own Maine state bond package continues, how might we get lawmakers to translate any borrowing to specific on the ground projects that will help shape our future economy?

There are few that can debate, with a straight face, that both the public and private sectors have a responsibility to invest if we are to grow our economy. The disagreement arises over how strategic that investment is.

Enter the “Communities for Maine’s Future” bill, submitted by Senate President Mitchell and State Representative Rotundo. The proposal morphs the Municipal Investment Trust Fund, a state program that has delivered barely a few grants a year on average in the 13 years it has been around, into a more robust fund to match private and public investment in Maine’s most important assets, our downtowns and villages.

It could fund the sidewalks, improve streetscapes, aid in saving historic buildings and renovating downtown buildings into financially viable housing projects for developers, among others potential improvements.

If approved and sent to the voters, it would capitalize this fund with roughly $27 million, nearly three times the largest cash infusion into the previous program.

Perhaps most valuable to considering such a measure is that it requires that investments by the state in these communities be matched dollar for dollar on the ground, ensuring commitment of local stakeholders and investors.

This global economic recession is hitting hard close to home, and there are only some things that are in our control. Why not commit ourselves to strengthening those areas most important to our future because they are so closely linked to our past, and target our local “stimulus” efforts in that direction? The “Communities for Maine’s Future” program would do that.

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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