Too Much Talk

So last night we had our first presidential debate of the 2016 campaign. This one featured only 10 of the large Republican field of contenders, or pseudo-contenders. Maybe the biggest accomplishment of Fox News (the debate’s host) was winnowing the Republican field of 64 (actually, there are only 17 “serious” candidates at this point) down to a workable number—even that is debatable.

No doubt I could spend Friday’s blog post space devoted to politics. But really folks, isn’t an August debate a full 15 months out from that fateful day in November when we choose someone else to lead us, a little premature? I know the driveby media at the NY Times and Washington Post have done a great job whipping up enthusiasm for the horserace, yet again. But like they always do, it’s more about the race, or a sentence taken out of context, than the actual issues facing ordinary Americans. And with politicians, you always have to take what they say with a grain of salt.

What I’d prefer to focus on this morning lingers in the vicinity of what I touched down on Tuesday—local economic development, and what this means for Maine’s future, near-term and possibly, longer term. That’s also a topic that you’ll never hear a national candidate talk about, regardless of whether we’re talking Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders. It’s also a topic that the media really doesn’t really do a very good job taking the pulse of—mainly because you can’t capture the nuance of it from your office on the upper floors of your news empire, or via Twitter and Facebook. It’s felt out on the streets, in the fields, your local farmers’ market or farm where you get to know your source of food, or other places where real people still congregate.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while now. I’ve also been blogging about it. There’s this post here, another one here, and the topic pre-dates the JBE, as I was talking about issues of local communities (including how media types mess up their coverage) back in 2008 on my old blog, Words Matter.

It frustrates me how so much of our economic and cultural buzz in Maine remains centered only on Portland. Granted, some of it makes sense since Portland is the state’s largest city and cultural hub, a key shipping port, and where most of our media is based. It’s also a city that’s gotten the lion’s share of attention from Mainebiz, and from journalists from away covering food. The story is mainly about Portland being a food Mecca, a foodie haven, the restaurant capital, or some variation on that story.

Occasionally, someone notices that other places in the Pine Tree State that aren’t named Portland, have functional local economies, and assets that aren’t restaurant-based. Take for instance the story that Mary Pols did on Skowhegan for the Maine Sunday Telegram. The article was a decent one, but I bet Ms. Pols was surprised to make her way to the gritty mill town on the Kennebec River, 150 miles north of idyllic Portland and its foodie overkill, and find that the community had running water and alas, a grist mill. It’s also the home of Amber Lambke, an entrepreneur (or “agripreneur, a term my friend Emily uses) to be reckoned with.

Having spent time in Skowhegan once a month at least, from 2006 through 2012, and occasionally since, I can tell you from experience that Skowhegan has been taking baby steps forward for a decade, or longer, to revitalize downtown and find the kinds of catalysts like Lambke and her Maine Grains, to drive their local-based economic recovery.

Unlike NPR’s Adam Davidson, anyone spending a bit of time in Skowhegan knew that the community had more going for it than teenage mothers, drug addicts, and high school dropouts who are unemployable—at least that’s how he portrayed the town back in 2007 on the national radio stage.

There are other places where things are happening around the state. Local Ag is usually part of the mix, like in Lewiston, where a group called Grow L+A is looking to promote the redevelopment of the Bates Mill, specifically Bates Mill No. 5. For the purposes of self-disclosure, I’ve been hired as a project coordinator for a couple of months to help shepherd elements of their process, including a public forum coming in September. But, I knew about L/A’s revival long before being welcomed on-board in some official capacity. My French-Canadian grandparents moved to Lewiston from Canada during a large influx of Canadian immigration during the late 18th and early 19th century. I know about the ups and downs of the community, now on the way up again, dating back to my days as a little tyke, shopping for school clothes on Lisbon Street.

Downtown Lewiston, Maine, as dusk approaches.

Downtown Lewiston, Maine, as dusk approaches.

I could also highlight positive elements in Biddeford (actually, I’ve already done that, on the pages of the Boston Globe), communities in Western Maine, like Norway and Bethel, as well as Brunswick, Bath, Rockland, and Eastport.

With all due respect to the likes of Donald Trump and his other Republican challengers, these places in Maine are going to sink or swim, not based upon who we decide to vote for in November of 2016—no, their long-term economic viability will be determined by local leaders and others invested in these local communities. It’s particularly exciting for me to see them thinking about local food, food hubs, mill redevelopment, and growing local-based economies that can be connected on a regional basis. This is the kind of stuff that tempers the overall economic gloom, and more important in my opinion—counters the false notion that someone in Washington (or Augusta), wedded to ideology and committed to slightly minor reforms will offer us long-term prosperity.

But that’s where many will continue to look and get caught up in all the hoopla and histrionics. It’s easier, I guess. Me, I prefer to roll-up my sleeves and put my boots on the ground in my own backyard and where I spend the majority of my waking hours.

It just makes too much sense to me.

2 thoughts on “Too Much Talk

  1. Hey Jim, great blog. It gave us food for thought, and exposure to the other Maine. And I thank you for that. Just wondering if you ever found a glimmer of hope and prosperity for Aroostook. Absolutely beautiful area of Maine, with great people and hardworking values. Just wondering what your thoughts were. Keep on blogging, it does make a difference. And Thanks for sharing and caring.

  2. @Patti Thanks! I adore the County and treasure the time I got to spend there in some of my travels during 2012-13 (and getting to meet you!).

    I worry about places like Aroostook County. Given Maine’s demographics (aging population), and lack of population density, it’s going to be difficult to continue to do things in the same old way, especially in terms of maintaining services and infrastructure using the same old model. That doesn’t mean that Aroostook County doesn’t have assets.

    Abundant land, natural beauty—a pristine kind that hasn’t been despoiled by ugly 20th century sprawl common across much of southern Maine—as well as the salt of the earth kinds of people that you mention and I got to meet on several trips a couple of years ago.

    These issues are rarely touched upon by any of the so-called journalists writing for newspapers and other publications in the state.

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