A crossroads for Maine’s economy

What do a paper mill, a lobsterman’s dock and a dairy farmer’s barn have in common with a gravel pit, a granite quarry and a blueberry freezer? They each make smells and sounds that signal they are small but essential parts of Maine’s local resource-based economy.

Long a self-reliant state and region, many of Maine’s traditional occupations and employers are under newfound pressure as our economy shifts away from many land- and sea-based jobs to those in the service sector. Indeed, Maine’s top five economic drivers today are health care, retail, tourism, education and construction. Only the last manufactures a product.

Maine has incredible physical assets beyond its natural beauty. Huge forest lands produce more wood each year than is harvested. Massive deposits of granite, limestone, zinc and copper exist throughout the state, while our barrens still render large yields of wild blueberries. The Gulf of Maine produces record lobster harvests.

Yet, the last few years of our news coverage reveals a growing divide between those who make their livings utilizing Maine’s resources and those who seek to preserve Maine as “the way life should be” for residents and tourists. Longstanding owners of quarries and gravel pits, seeking to expand their enterprises, run afoul of new land ordinances. Aquaculture growth is slowed or stalled by environmental groups and waterfront property owners. Fishermen, who used to enjoy unfettered access to their boats, find their water access reduced year after year.

While nobody would revel in the sound of a rock-crusher next to their property, folks have purchased property next to a quarry, in a village named after a quarry and then become upset when the quarry operates. What lengths do working people have to go to in order to be good neighbors? Must lobstermen worry over the smell of their bait, the sound of their diesel engines? Will the dairy farmer now surrounded by urban sprawl be unable to modernize and expand? Must gravel be mined and dirt dug several towns away to provide roads, new foundations and septic systems? Are we prepared for spiraling costs and transportation times?

A current gravel pit permit process locally has taken more than five years. This is not an isolated example. Towns and other governing bodies need to provide businesses with clear, consistent regulations and prompt decision-making, void of politics. Both citizens and businesses should expect a reasonable balance between economic growth, resource protection, and ordinances and regulations designed to protect the public.

Gov. Paul LePage is fond of reminding government agencies and economic development advocates that “capital goes where it is welcomed, and stays where it is appreciated.” A lack of balance between industry and community harmony undermines jobs and entrepreneurial spirit, as well as a community’s ability to realize sustainable tax revenues. Hauling up the ladder before others succeed smacks of “I have mine; go get your own.”

Maine’s, and Hancock County’s, shift to a service-sector economy also illustrates how we are fast becoming a retirement community. Curtailing or destroying industries that seek to capitalize on our vast resources to create jobs will challenge our ability to sustain the multifaceted economy so vital to long-term sustainability.

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