Steps Forward

Jonathan LaBonte

It should come as no surprise that Maine’s economy continues to struggle to find a sustainable future. Dozens of reports over the last few decades have recommended new initiatives and new strategies to set us on a new course, but if you look at the names on the study groups, it shows that while we may develop new ideas, it is often the same people who are proposing them.

A leader in the women’s rights movement, Susan B. Anthony, offered some insight that’s applicable today, as we venture into yet another effort to re-invent Maine’s economy. She said, “Cautious, careful people, always casting about to preserve their reputation and social standing, never can bring about a reform.”

While these economic times find most states wrestling with how to survive the downturn, even when the economy was growing nationally over the last 10 years,Maine did not experience the growth seen in other states. Clearly, Maine has needed reform to transition our economy onto a more solid footing.

But look around the political and business landscape, at the state level or even in your own community, and try to count the number of new faces on the block, versus the longstanding faces that remain in positions of influence.

This should not insinuate that holding a position for a long period harms ability to implement reform. The mayor of North Adams, Mass., blows that theory out of the water, as his 15 years of service toward reinventing that community has made it a model of the 21st-century creative economy. There is circumstantial evidence, however, that could lead to an indictment of Maine’s lack of new dynamic leaders as being directly correlated to our economic stagnation.

Leading the populace into unchartered territory is not an easy task. In the world of politics, the ability to have a warm smile, a firm handshake and be a smooth talker may do more to earn someone an election win, than have the strong ideas and policies that advance a common good. For in politics, the measure of your success is the ability to continue getting elected by your constituents, not negotiating for long term sustainability.

Of course, the approach of preserving one’s reputation and social standing goes beyond the realm of government and into many other circles, especially nonprofits. Name a type of “service” in your own community and count the number of organizations providing it.

While this test is likely easier in service-center communities, how many social service agencies, historic preservation groups, arts and cultural organizations can you find? What leads some of these groups to be in stronger financial or community standing? Is it the work they do? Is it the impact of that work? Or is it the relationships they have based on who sits on their board or staff rolls? An organization’s political connections all too often determine its viability, an unfortunate outcome of political process.

You may be wondering how this all comes together and has relevance today. Through an Executive Order from Gov. John Baldacci, in partnership with Fairpoint Communications, Maine is embarking on yet another economic development planning effort under the nom de guerre of “Mobilize Maine.”

The goal will be to create regional development strategies, in the theme of “quality of place” and tied to very specific benchmarks through 2015. It is expected that by setting measurable outcomes it will allow us to innovate and strengthen our economy by focusing on core strengths and existing assets, rather than listing our needs and wants.

Take away the political boundaries and take away the bureaucracies of nonprofit agencies and simply look at the assets that sit before us and the financial resources that are available – Maine and this region have amazing potential.

The real challenge in re-inventing our economy for the 21st-century will be less about finding new products and marketing strategies and more about breaking down institutional and political barriers built by the generation that got us here.

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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