Maine is Open for Boondoggles

The Maine Open for Business Chevrolet. (Associated Press photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

The governor has decreed that Maine should hang its economic fortunes on the Maine Is Open for Business Chevrolet and Austin Theriault’s skill as a driver. This seems to be a foolhardy plan at best, hearkening back to economic development principles known as “smokestack chasing,” which arguably worked in the 1960s and 1970s, but are about 50 years out of date. Here’s what Peter Boothroyd and H. Craig Davis had to say about the practice in their 1993 report titled, “Community Economic Development: Three Approaches,” from the Journal of Planning Education and Research—I have a hunch that the governor doesn’t have a subscription to it.

Traditionally, growth has been espoused and promoted by chambers of commerce, unions, and politicians who have grasped at any opportunity to attract investment in order to increase the size of the local economy. This traditional, often haphazard approach to growth promotion has been labeled “smokestack chasing” by its detractors.

Yet, the governor and I’m guessing his economic development gurus, John Butera and George Gervais, apparently cooked this up and think this is a viable strategy. Butera’s economic development claim to fame is FirstPark in Oakland, another example of “putting all your eggs in one basket,” hoping for a home run by attracting a large employer to ride in on a white horse and bestow hundreds of jobs on a community or region.

Two articles written by two different reporters four months ago, which I referenced in a previous blog post on economic development, demonstrated that FirstPark and economic development practices like TiFs are not effective. Similarly, neither is running a stock car around NASCAR tracks, in my opinion. There are innovative models of public-private partnerships that don’t require investing $50,000 in a race car.

Most of Maine’s development community continues to build and develop as in the past—without any recognition of potential consequences relative to peak oil, as well as not recognizing the need for coordinated public transportation, while ensuring livable communities. This is fool-hardy, and just plain short-sighted—but that’s exactly how business boosters, most local governments, and Maine’s development mafia continue to roll.

I’m anxious to hear the usual suspects about government wasting taxpayer dollars weigh-in on this.

“Bueller? Bueller?”

Explore! Norway—Bonus Material

Every month, I head out to a town in Maine and try to capture the essence of its people and the place. Since May, when I began these Explore! features for the Lewiston Sun-Journal, I’ve visited Wilton, New Gloucester, Turner, and a few weeks ago, it was Norway.

I continue to hold a fascination about the changes that are taking places in smaller communities across the state of Maine and elsewhere. If America is anything, it’s a country of small towns and communities. Maine is no different in that regard.

The economic shift that’s occurred over the past 40 years hasn’t been kind to small towns like Norway. Many communities in western Maine have been hit hard by globalization, and the loss of traditional resource-based jobs that have disappeared.

New Balance, America’s last athletic shoe manufacturer, has a manufacturing facility in Norway (opened in 1997). They also have a factory store in neighboring Oxford. These kinds of jobs have all but disappeared from western Maine, where manufacturing once was a key industry.

Norway's Opera House stands like a beacon on Main Street.

Norway’s Opera House stands like a beacon on Main Street.

While I live in central Maine, 30 miles from Norway, I’ve visited the town numerous times over the past 10 years. I even held a book signing in town when my first book, When Towns Had Teams, about small town baseball in Maine, was released back in 2005. At that time, Main Street was struggling. Many of the storefronts were vacant.

There have been a number of efforts to revive the downtown area and the Oxford Hills region. I’ve been around long enough to remember Enterprise Maine. I even participated in one of their development workshops that they held, which was probably in 2006 or 2007.

It was gratifying last December when my wife and I were passing through Norway on the way to a family Christmas gathering in Bryant Pond, to see some new businesses dotting Main Street. We stopped for about an hour, sipped some wine at a wine tasting at Fiber & Vine, and grabbed coffee and pastries at Café Nomad. It was obvious that filling some empty storefronts had really helped bring a new energy and vibe to the town’s quaint Main Street.

During my most recent visit, I heard from locals that Norway’s new look and vibrancy was a result of local citizens banding together to be the change that they wanted to see for their town. It wasn’t accomplished from the outside, with traditional economic development methods—many of them have been tried and found wanting in Norway and places like it. The former head of Enterprise Maine is now off in Montana, I believe. I’m sure he was a good guy and obviously bright. But he didn’t really understand the local culture, which is always a deal-breaker, in my opinion.

Locals are working to save the Gingerbread House, a link to the past in Norway.

Locals are working to save the Gingerbread House, a link to the past in Norway.

When places like Norway decide to figure out what’s special about their place, and rally around some of those unique assets, good things can happen. A visit to Norway will bear this out.

Other struggling places in Maine could do the same thing—but many won’t—for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s a lack of vision. Other times, it’s simply that not enough people have the hope required that it takes to dream and see a new way forward.


Hi! My name is Jim Baumer. If you are reading my blog for the first time, I’m a Maine-based writer, indie publisher, and freelancer. I write for a variety of publications, including monthly features like my Explore! pieces in the Sun-Journal. I also have a brand new book out, The Perfect Number: Essays & Stories Vol. 1. It’s about Maine, small towns, walks across America, and old-time writers like John Gould. It’s available from my small press, RiverVision Press. I’m also giving a reading/talk about life in small town Maine on Sept. 24, in my hometown of Lisbon Falls, at Lisbon Falls Community Library.

Keep Doing What You’re Doing

I have a tendency towards impatience. If some new idea or project doesn’t take off immediately, I’m ready to rate it as a failure and run off in a new direction. At least that’s what I used to do a lot more often. I’ve learned from past mistakes.

Novelty and hoping that if you throw enough mud (or some other substance) up against the wall, some of it might stick isn’t always the best formula for success. Being entrepreneurial does require being somewhat risk averse, however.

When you release a new book, propose an investigative story to an editor at a publication, or pitch new projects hoping to keep enough work in your freelance pipeline to stay afloat, it’s easy to think nothing’s happening. Sometimes the phone doesn’t ring today, or email seems like it’s broken. Tomorrow’s sunrise always offers new possibilities. Continue reading

The Value of Instruction

When do we reach the age when we stop learning—or perhaps better—stop accepting instruction? Is it 50? 60? I think some people cease being open to advice and constructive feedback much earlier than that.

When I was in my 20s, I didn’t really know much about mentoring. Actually, the fundamentalist theology that informed my life during that period didn’t really value mentoring at all. Edicts came down from on high and there was little give and take.

Being a late-bloomer, I’ve learned to value instruction and picking up things on the fly. Whoever coined the adage, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” has perpetuated a myth that education and instruction is the exclusive right of the young, and off-limits to anyone past the age of say, 25. It also furthers a societal lie that we can’t continue to learn and grow until the end of our lives. Continue reading

Summer Tourists

The past few days were spent making like a tourist. Mary and I finally managed to coordinate our calendars, and by leveraging the holiday on Monday, and adding a couple of days following America’s paean to workers, we pieced together four days/three nights of what was our summer vacation, 2014.

American workers take fewer vacation days than anyone else with an advanced economy in the world because we’re the only place where workers aren’t guaranteed paid vacation time. Nearly ¼ of all U.S. workers get no paid holidays or vacations at all—I would fall into that category, residing in free agent nation. Another survey indicates that Americans who accrue paid time off only take half of it on average. Continue reading

A New Way of Labor

Labor Day weekend has come and gone.  While many are returning to work Tuesday morning, I’m actually trying to find a few days of respite from the freelance treadmill of the past few months.

The ongoing narrative in some corners is that the world of work is changing. I know that’s true, but it still seems like–at least from my perspective–that most people I know in Maine still work structured hours, often 9 to 5, with available paid vacation time, at least enough to spend long weekends away from their work whenever there is a national holiday, like yesterday’s. Inevitably, they turn these into three, or four-day weekends away from the office.

Vacation Day

Vacation Day

Continue reading

Chasing Stories

My last article for the Portland Phoenix looked at the governor’s firing of MTI’s Bob Martin. Apparently the Portland Press Herald is doing some follow-up on the firing and what might be behind it. Of course, this type of “fact-checking” reminds me of the recent post by journalism professor and press critic, Jay Rosen, what he referred to as “he said, she said” journalism. I hope there’s more to come on this from Whit Richardson.

I was able to locate the smoke, but as a freelancer, I don’t have the resources and time due to the need to chase a new story and another deadline, to find the fire. I wish I could dig deeper, as this governor’s inability to tolerate other viewpoints is quite obvious to me. I’m also pretty sure that most of what the governor is saying about MTI and what’s behind the firing is BS.

Today, I’m  off in pursuit of two deadlines for two different editors, plus working on other feature articles highlighting nonprofits. One of my stories is about economic development, the city of Portland, and why traditional ED models no longer work. Don’t tell that to Paul LePage, or his economic lackeys, all economic development dinosaurs. Continue reading

Put It in the Books

I have continued setting goals that stretch, and force me outside of my comfort zone. This is all part of continuing down the road that runs through reinvention and beyond. Some of these recent goals have really pushed me physically. Others involve continuing growing as a writer, another goal I set for myself a decade ago.

On Sunday, I completed my first Olympic triathlon. That’s something I had planned to accomplish last year, but a bike accident in early August derailed my plans. My wife, Mary, was even more amazing—she rocked her first half Rev—doubling my distances on the bike and in the run, and going .3 miles further on the swim.

The number tattoos have been applied--Rev3 2014.

The number tattoos have been applied–Rev3 2014.

Training began for me back in February. I remember my first tentative run at the Bath Y. I was happy that I ran 21 minutes on the indoor track without pain, as I was trying to push beyond a time in the fall when I couldn’t run at all due to excruciating left hip pain. Continue reading

You’re Not in Kansas Anymore

All of us crave order. We want B to follow after A, and when we end up somewhere else, it throws things totally out of whack for us.

In case you haven’t noticed—our world has descended into chaos—terrorist cells, heavily armed and fueled by rage and ideology are visiting death upon American journalists and pain and loss on those who don’t share their twisted view of the world. People of color daring to push back against racist police in an American city are met with a militarized response and tone-deafness from the white power structure and law enforcement that no longer seems interested in safeguarding the people they are pledged to serve, or the property that we know that they exist to protect. It’s brute force with a 21st century military twist. Continue reading

Posting Time Again

It just occurred to me that it’s Tuesday and I’m supposed to have a post up—well, in a technical sense, I still have slightly less than six hours to get it up before Tuesday’s done gone.

In some ways, Sunday’s food review/post about Slab was really my Tuesday post, two days early. But, just in case somebody’s keeping score, I’m staying true to my Tuesday/Friday posting schedule.

I’ve actually been chasing a story since late last week that’s due to hit the streets on Friday. It’s got some investigative elements, and it’s one I’m feeling really good about, getting it sourced and written, and turned in on a tight deadline. I also appreciate a new editor who took a chance that I could deliver it. More details to follow on that one. Continue reading