A Better Life

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.

4 thoughts on “A Better Life

  1. Ah, the economic development mafia, stuck on a model that is irreparably broken, but they’ll ruin as much farmland as possible in increasingly frantic pursuit of their shrinking margins before they’re gone. Another much wiser than myself (Gatto, of course) pointed out that most school boards are dominated by realtors. Build a neighborhood, build a school, and raise property taxes.

    Property taxes, of course, are the means by which governments insure that you never own your house, ever. You are renting it from the government. All for the sake of the children, of course.

    When people from other countries look at Americans and say, “How can you possibly believe that you are the most free people on earth,” they are looking right at this sort of thing. No one loses his house, his farm, for failure to pay taxes. Italy, for example, is a poor country. It’s always on the list of “next to collapse” because its parade of government(s) is so deeply in debt, its banks so overextended. But 85% of Italians own their property, their farm, house or apartment, outright–no debt to a bank, and they will never lose their property for back taxes. The government will collapse, the banks will fail, and the Italians themselves will carry on their business pretty much as usual.

    Lewiston is a classic Kunstler case. Of course people built out and away from the downtown, which itself was horribly crowded, noisy and polluted. But was that really as good an idea as it seemed at the time? Certainly no better than importing Somalis who now constitute an imposing presence along the blocks where working men’s clubs used to dominate. Lewiston, however, has tremendous potential in that river and canal system. What if the city was wise enough to claim the canal (I’m not sure who owns it now) and to start generating hydropower from it? What if instead of selling it back to CMP, they sold it themselves to entrepreneurs along the backbone of mills? What if Lewiston became the place to make cheese, fashion barrels, and other light industrial items, such as farm tools?

    It probably doesn’t hurt to mention that Lisbon could do the very same thing for itself, if only it stopped carrying the water for Miller Industries.

    There is a price to be paid for stupidity. Regrettably, the ones who should pay it almost never do.

  2. I think we need to stop talking about economic “growth.” Period.
    There is no such thing as unlimited “growth” and although it is unbelievable to most, we are in a contracting economy.

    Maine’s objective should be to hold as much of its “wealth” together (arable land, waterways) and minimize potential losses by refusing to participate in schemes like East/West highways and shale oil pipelines.

    We really shouldn’t be concerned with some fantasy idea of generating new wealth. That’s the paradigm shift that might lead to a better life. Interesting blog post, Jim.

  3. Absolutely, Julie. Maine’s wealth is its resources, its land, trees, rivers and bays. “Growth” is the term for a process, generally quite destructive, that converts the wealth to a dollar value, and then transfers those dollars to a very few, or out of state. The resource is bled dry, and it was the only wealth there was to begin with. Dollars aren’t wealth.

    Growth is not the future, but that’s an ideology so deeply set into people’s minds that it is not only exceedingly difficult to eradicate, but it will become their justification for all sorts of insults and obscenities as people grow increasingly desperate.

  4. Great comments, @LP and @JAB. Here a few additional thoughts.

    Maine’s economy has always had an economy that was based on a “feudal” (some would say, “futile”) model. Large tracts of the state, and the resources that you note, LP (land, trees, rivers, bays) have been owned, or controlled by the landed gentry, or other barons. Most of the state’s citizens have lived in subservience to those barons and in many instances that feudal mindset still carries over into the 21st century. This is very evident in the rural regions of Maine, not so apparent in places where the hipsters now reside, like Portland.

    Just yesterday, returning to Bangor for a family event (a funeral), I was reminded that the Queen City was once filled with lumber money and many of the older homes, some of them quite palatial, are holdovers from that era.

    Looking at the situation in South Portland, it’s obvious that that feudal mindset still drives the debate. If you look at the players opposing the Waterfront Protection Ordinance (WPO); bankrolled by Big Oil to the tune of $600,000 (or $135 per vote), the state “leaders” representing the interests of business and development were the Maine State Chamber, the pipeline interests of Portland Pipeline Corp. (as subsidiary of ExxonMobil), former governor Baldacci, Cianbro; these are all elements of what some might call “the development mafia.” What’s sad is that good, local people got swept up and began carrying the water for this well-heeled group, so councilors were siding with the interests of developers, rather than with the group looking to save and protect the natural assets of a great community bordering Casco Bay.

    The East/West boondoggle proposed and promoted by Cianbro’s Peter Vigue, is an example of a land grab reminiscent of the 15th century, yet here we are, 700 years later, when we should be thinking less about transporting everything by trucks, and someone considered a leader of industry is proposing something that could be totally obsolete in 50 years, if peak oil is brought into the conversation.

    Still, the people follow these pied pipers, much to their peril, like they have for centuries. I don’t see human nature changing on that front.

    The grassroots efforts of Protect South Portland and others nearly won out, even though they were outspent by a margin of 10 to 1.

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