A few years ago, I was involved in some community-based work in Portland, centered on economic justice, neighborhood issues, and housing. A fellow organizer had a term for the city’s development community that I found appealing, because it characterized what development too often is—he called the power brokers “the neighborhood development mafia.” By that, he meant that those wielding the power to develop properties and “grow” the economy; realtors, property developers, city officials; the members of that “mafia,” circumvented the will of the people, most often in pursuit of profit.
Local news stories and discussions keep me coming back to this issue of development. Just the other morning, another community rabble-rouser I know in Lewiston posted something on her Facebook page, linking to a Facebook rumination by a local architect named Eric Potvin. Potvin was talking about development from a different perspective, one that he framed as “inside out,” rather than big box, and peripheral development that has plagued the Twin Cities for more than 30 years, in my opinion.
That sprawl-producing, big box agenda has been what the economic powers that be have been focused on since the early 1980s. It might have worked then, although I could argue that many of our economic issues today are rooted in some really poor decisions made then and even before and how many of our issues today are rooted in the 1970s. For more of that, read my review of George Packer’s latest book, which addressed our 30-year period of “unwinding.”
Smokestack “chasing” no longer works. Yet, it’s tough to get developers who have been doing things the same way for 20-30 years to change. I think that’s partly what Potvin was getting at. In fact, so much of what gets passed off as statewide leadership is based upon outmoded thinking about growth and planning, models that haven’t worked well for the last 10 years, if they worked well before that.
Local economic strategies must begin centering on local communities. It might be possible to link something wider, regionally. Local, however, would be a great starting point.
One area that some are talking about, but not enough, is farming. Even the concept of farming is too often framed incorrectly, and the model isn’t local enough.
There are opportunities to create value-added products associated with food. Fortunately, the interest in it is mostly centered among people that care about sustainable development and the future of Maine. In just a decade, farming has become an important consideration for anyone that has been paying attention to hyper-local economic growth. Everyone has to eat. What if we actually began producing our own food, right where we live? Maine has the capacity to be the bread basket of New England. The production of wheat in the Northeast is an example of farming at a scale that would have been scoffed at 20 years ago.
There’s a lot of talk about Maine being an “old” state, by which, I mean we’re the oldest state in the nation, per capita, with our population of older residents growing rapidly. U.S. census data shows that 21 percent of Maine’s population is 60 or older and by 2030, one-quarter of the state will be older than 65. Do older Mainers want to jump in the car and drive 45 minutes to Wal-Mart every time they need a gallon of milk? I’d like to say, “no,” but I’m not sure. They’ve been socialized like everyone else to bypass what’s best for the local economy, and take money out of their town, and plop it down at a Wal-Mart, or even Shaw’s, versus supporting a local farmer.
Maine is also a rural state. We need to adopt models that work with rural populations. An example might be Vermont, one of our New England neighbors.
According to Dr. Susan Wehry, commissioner for Vermont’s Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living (DAIL), their state saved $13 million on long-term care over the last two years, largely by spending more on home-care services and group homes that help keep seniors in their communities and out of nursing homes. Focusing on the most local options is cost-effective.
It’s a model that Maine and other states could follow and doing so could help improve elder care, reduce costs and create more livable communities for people of all ages, not just the elderly.
Wehry spoke about these issues in October when she was a featured presenter at one of several round-table talks on aging challenges facing Maine.
I like some of the local solutions that are being considered. More and more people are realizing that they know just as much, if not more, than those that don’t have local interests at heart.