Testimony of Nancy Smith, Executive Director of GrowSmart Maine
in support of LD 163
“An Act to Provide Economic Development Assistance to Rural
March 24, 2015
Senator Volk, Representative Herbig and members of the Joint Standing Committee on Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development, my name is Nancy Smith, I live in Monmouth and I am the Executive Director of GrowSmart Maine. As a former House Chair of this committee, I am pleased to be here today to support this legislation.
GrowSmart Maine is a statewide non-profit, membership-based organization working to improve Maine's economy, protect its distinctive character and communities, and enhance our state's quality places. This bill, in its current form, provides a place for discussion about current efforts in achieving economic strength in Maine’s rural areas as well as identifying gaps in this work that should be addressed.
Rural Maine; how many different ways do we define it? This bill focuses on towns with a population below 1500 people. Many Maine communities consider themselves to be rural, even with two or three times that population. Though the data shows that the economic drivers in Maine are, for the most part, located in the more populated areas of Cumberland and York Counties and the Midcoast region, most of what we all recognize as Maine is in the rural areas; Aroostook County potato fields, Downeast lobster boats and the western Maine forests. These areas are not postcards. Though they are beautiful, these places are where Maine’s farmers, fishermen and forestry professionals life and work, where we find our heritage industries even now.
Today, with more people first choosing where they live and then choosing the work that suits that location, rural Maine has potential for additional forms of economic activity. Just this morning I was on the phone with my insurance provider, and the customer service representative was in Fort Kent. I buy my prescription medications from a company based in Fort Fairfield. This isn’t an either/or proposition. We need to look to our natural resource base and to the quality of place that draws people to live here.
There is good work in economic development happening across Maine. I’ve seen it in the Mobilize Maine efforts and other work of the regional Councils of Government. There are no one-size fits all solutions, nor should there be. Rural economic development should build on the local assets, identified by the business owners and residents who live and work in these areas, recognizing that efforts are most likely to be successful within a regional approach. One town on its own has less of a chance for success at creating economic opportunities than if the work were done with neighboring communities.
As for GrowSmart Maine, our efforts include advocacy for strategic policies, hosting events where Mainers can learn from each other, and our community planning project, Making Headway in Your Community.
Making Headway in Your Community is a partnership between GrowSmart Maine and the Maine Downtown Center, comprised of four key principles: smart design, community connections, local economy and healthy communities. It consists of a printed worksheet that is useful in community conversations about what matters to the people living and working there, and how to prioritize various strategies, for instance how to begin the process of implementing the steps of a municipal comprehensive plan. The worksheet, which can be downloaded from our website, ties directly to a searchable website which provides connections to local success stories as well as local, regional, statewide and even national resource organizations. The website is up and running, with additional improvements underway. There are currently around 100 resource organizations listed, and we are recruiting more on an ongoing basis. Later this year we plan to include businesses that offer services to community members and local businesses.
I’ll note that I work on this issue in my personal life too, as a farmer and forester in my earlier working life, and now as a member of Monmouth’s economic development committee. We are a town of nearly 4,000 residents with two small village centers. Monmouth has been a commuter town for decades, with most of us heading to another community for our work. But we too are looking for ways to bring jobs and economic opportunities to town. Our primary tool right now is a new TIF (tax increment financing), and we are developing assistance tools like micro-loans and façade improvement grants to support existing businesses, as a recruitment tool for potential new businesses, and a method for making our Main Streets more appealing for residents and therefore for businesses. We have secured a Project Canopy grant to inventory existing street trees and to plan for additional plantings that will add to that “sense of place” on our Main Streets, knowing that this is an important part of the economic development plan. We do all this in collaboration with KVCOG, the Kennebec Valley Council of Government, our regional economic development resource.
In closing, I take every opportunity I have, including this one, to promote the 2010 Science and Technology Action Plan, which resides in the Maine Dept of Economic and Community Development, under the jurisdiction of this committee. Anyone interested in economic development in Maine should begin by reading this action plan. I want to thank the sponsor of this bill for focusing attention on the rural areas of Maine, and the committee for this opportunity to speak to you today.
Background and worksheet of Making Headway in Your Community: growsmartmaine.org/mhyc
Searchable website of success stories and resources: makingheadway.me
Maine 2010 Science and Technology Action Plan: http://statedocs.maine.gov/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1000&context=decd_docs