Where there is no vision, the people perish…
People and places without a plan for the future—a vision—are doomed to failure. Equally worse in my opinion is a plan that takes you in the wrong direction.
I grew up in a community that at one time was a vibrant little place. Main Street had a number of places where you could shop, buy ice cream, pick up auto supplies; there was a barber shop (there were actually two, at one time), a hair salon, and several department stores. All of that’s just a memory that people rehash ad nauseum on Facebook these days. There’s a lot of hand-wringing going on, too. Rarely do they look behind the memories and wonder what happened to what was once Lisbon Falls.
Now, the place seems like a ghost town. Whenever I come across the river from Durham, where I’ve lived for 25 years, I see a town in retreat. The Worumbo Mill is a shell of its former self, and the old U.S. Gypsum is being dismantled. Kennebec’s, the vaunted Moxie Store, is badly in need of a coat of paint, windows should be replaced on the second story, and what about replacing the awnings that are torn and shredded? If you think that these are mere cosmetic issues, think again. If you need an example of successful Main Streets, you don’t have to drive too far to check one out. How about Brunswick? Or Bath? Sleepy little Gardiner has been making some noise of late.
Rural America, and small towns like Lisbon Falls have been in retreat for 30 years and I could argue that the economic model that led to their dismantling was hatched long before that. You can drive through community after community from Presque Isle, Maine and all across the American landscape and see the ravages of an economy that’s offshored its production, and ceded control to interests that are not controlled locally.
In a prior role, which touched on workforce and economic development, I became a fan of Jack Schultz and his ideas about small town vitality and how to achieve it. Schultz was CEO of the Boomtown Institute, and Boomtown conducted research on what made some communities thrive, and others go the way of where Lisbon Falls is headed. He even wrote a book about it. Here’s a hint about his ideas; big-box development isn’t part of it. Glad to get that taken care of.
What struck me in the work I did for six years was how often I’d cite Jack Schultz and his very clear prescriptions for small town prosperity, based upon decades of case studies and successful outcomes, only to have so-called professional economic development people who’d been in the game for years, turn a deaf ear. Schultz appears to be transitioning into retirement. His ideas live on. He’s also not the only guy with ideas about a way forward, either.
I maintained a blog about some of these issues for a couple of years. It’s dormant, but still available online. Looking back over the things I posted, there’s some usable material.
I’ve written about Ben Hewitt, read an important book of his, heard him speak, and continue to champion his model for creating vibrant local economies. Rarely does anyone pay attention. Most people have their own set agendas, based upon outmoded credentials from the Muskie School, or some other academic program. Or they’ve been running local economies into the ditch for decades and apparently that’s how you build a portfolio when you call yourself an economic developer. Color me unimpressed!
If we look at the state level, as much as our current governor talked about setting a new course for the state, all he’s been able to do is regularly run the state down and cite all the “problems.” Sometimes his phraseology is downright disgusting, too.
Yes, we know Maine has challenges. I part ways with the governor on what I think they are. Actually, I think our state has some very tangible assets that aren’t what he’s been focused on. Our environment, some of the place-based qualities that Maine offers, the possibility of leveraging local agriculture—those would be assets that I’d focus on if I were governor. But I’m not and never will be. My focus is much more local, anyways.
Local matters; I believe that. It’s how I live my life and where I try to direct my assets. I think that’s a good start and it’s where my vision is set, locally.
As Jack Schultz used to say, “Vision is the difference between a ghost town and a Boomtown!”