“We Can Do This!”

-Nancy E. Smith, Executive Director

 

I attended the Maine Real Estate and Developers Association’s (MEREDA) spring conference last week to see what I could learn about how the Mega Trends of global population growth will impact living, working, and building in Maine. MEREDA focused on commercial real estate, and I attended with an eye towards smart growth.

The keynote speaker, Dr. Susan Wachter, of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania presented three mega trends and discussed their impact on Maine. A panel discussion followed, with Governor Angus King discussing energy, Laurie LaChance of Maine Development Foundation spoke on Maine demographics, Commissioner David Bernhardt discussed transportation, and Gunnar Hubbard of Fore Solutions spoke on sustainable building design.

Here are the highlights:

The global population is growing, and we all know Asia and India lead the pack. But I didn't realize that the United States is the third fastest growing country. Maine will add 139,000 people in the next ten years; much of this growth will come from in-migration. That's the equivalent of two Portlands. Mainers as a whole are aging, with those over 65 currently at 16% of the population, but expected to be 27% by 2030.

The price of oil will continue to increase, as not only global population, but incomes increase. China, India, even Africa will be driving demand for energy. Because of the cold climate and our dependence on oil for heating, Maine is more vulnerable than most other places.

So what does this have to do with smart growth in Maine?

  • 70% of Mainers live in cities or suburbs. This trend is expected to continue. As our population ages, we'll be moving back to the cities, with access to transit, healthcare and cultural activities, while we leave behind mowing the lawn and shoveling the driveway! There are real opportunities to in-filling, rehabbing old buildings, and even retro-fitting strip malls and shopping malls for multi-use, including housing.
  • Growth occurs where there is access, and roads are built where there is potential for economic development. It seems like a Catch-22, but we see it in Maine, with the healthiest economies along the I-95 corridor. Maine will likely continue to be “spatially defined” due to road access. Let's address the needs of northern and eastern Maine knowing that vehicle travel is a limiting factor on economic growth. Seaports, rail lines, and protecting the unique quality of place all have potential for strengthening our rim counties.
  • We need to act on a state energy plan. First, we need to focus on efficiency and conservation. This means factoring commuting costs into our decisions on where to live and work. With an aging housing stock we need to retrofit existing buildings while we build more efficient ones. Our current Maine Uniform Building and Energy Code, which establishes minimum standards for energy efficiency, is at risk of significant rollbacks in the legislature; taking us away from this primary goal.
  • We need to diversify our energy sources. Biomass and natural gas are two existing fuels that can serve as an interim step as research, development, and commercialization continues on wind, solar, geo-thermal and yes, nuclear was mentioned as part of the mix. Gunnar Hubbard asked the intriguing question; “What if a building made more energy than it used?”
  • Within this global context, Maine needs to focus on our greatest assets while dealing head on with our challenges. That's the only way we'll be competitive in creating and recruiting business and jobs. Dr. Wachter said it best. “Maine must focus on education and government efficiency, while maintaining the assets it is known for, especially quality of place and quality of life. Our key resource, as a matter of competition, is our unique asset of open space and amenities.” “Business taxes are critical, but in the end, what matters are the services delivered before the taxes occur.”
  • Laurie LaChance made another key point. Population growth will depend on in-migration, so we need jobs to draw people here and acceptance of diversity to keep them here. The key is adding value to our natural resources, “rethinking the industries we've known forever.”
  • I'll close with a quote from Governor King shared by Evan Richert (a GrowSmart Maine board member). “Maine's economy should be like that on Mount Desert Island: tourism and outdoor recreation, high tech (Jackson Labs), and manufacturing (boat building). We can do this.”
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