Friday, August 7, 2009

"GrowSmart," or Growing Smarter, Maine?

“GrowSmart Maine” is a non-profit organization focused on regulating development in Maine to avoid “sprawl” and to ensure that our “quality of place” is preserved. It was founded by Alan Caron, a talented community organizer with a decidedly colorful resume, who for reasons not clear, has moved on from the organization. The roots of the non-profit are in the larger environmental NIMBY and BANANA movements. Maine is a haven for advocates of both.

A few years back, GrowSmart Maine sponsored a study by the Brookings Institution to assess our future and make appropriate recommendations. As I recall, they received a grant from the State to pay for it. To their credit, the study recommended lowering the tax burden on Maine citizens, but was otherwise the expected warning against any and all forms of economic development.

While the report generated a lot of interest when it was released, it barely shows on the radar screen now. There may be a fairly sensible reason why this is so.

Growth of any sort, smart or otherwise, is the least of Maine’s possibilities. Bluntly speaking, the state is in a demographic winter, carefully managing its demise. The statistical indicators are undeniable, and even worse, show that the state is approaching the point of irreversibility – that is, a trend so negative that it is virtually impossible to overcome. In other words, we are on a slippery slope that is about to become a death spiral.

Can I prove it? Let US Census Bureau estimates released May 1, 2008 make the point for me:

o Maine’s total population grew by less than 40,000 between July 1, 2000 and July 1, 2007, or about 3% in 7 years, and the majority of this growth occurred early in that period, slowing to a mere trickle in recent years.

o In the under 18 age segment, Maine lost nearly 22,000 over that same period, for a decline of more than 7%.

o In the 25 to 44 age segment over that same period, Maine lost more than 31,000, declining more than 8%.

These two declines clearly confirm a catastrophic loss of young families from our state. The very families that would provide students for our schools and vibrant economic growth, but who are choosing to do so elsewhere.

On top of this very disturbing and increasingly irreversible decline, Brunswick and the surrounding region are about to be slammed by the demographic tornado of BNAS closure. And what kind of message does it send that the two primary funeral parlors in town have undergone major expansions and renovations?

Grow Smart? I humbly suggest that it is far more important that we focus on growing smarter. We need to enact policies that ensure that Maine has a sustainable economic outlook, and elect officials who are committed to doing so.

The alternative is to wallow in our status as the oldest state in the nation, and to look to the Obama administration’s proposal for managing End of Life as the only “growth” possibility in the state.

Ironic, isn’t it, that accelerating the demise of our most prominent age cohort may be the only politically acceptable growth opportunity left in our state.

That’s the outlook, unless Mainers decide that growing smarter about our future is infinitely more important than worrying about chopping down a few acres of trees to make room for economic development.

It sure makes me feel better to know that my passing will help someone have a better life; I hope you feel the same.

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