Equal Exchange- International Visitor Leadership Program

GrowSmart Maine recently spent time with two mayors from Germany through the US State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program. We shared best practices and lessons learned from our work in community revitalization and economic development for towns and cities addressing diminished growth and an aging population. This visit was coordinated by the World Affairs Council of Maine.

Lord Mayor Silvio Witt from the City of Neubrandenburg and Mayor Sven Schrade from the City of Schmoelln have been traveling the US to learn from government officials, non-profit leaders and others, how we address challenges that they, too, are facing.

As with past visits with the State Dept. International Visitor Leadership Program, I initially thought we couldn’t possibly make full use of the 90-minutes allotted in their schedule for our discussion, and of course, we could have easily continued for another hour! I was joined by Board Member Bryce Hach, co-founder of Maine Food for Thought Tours who offered his perspective on the connections between quality of place,  economic prosperity and community inclusivity. 

I share this because a) it was an enjoyable experience and I love my job and b) the discussion we had is likely relevant to Maine communities.  So here are a few highlights.

As we reviewed GrowSmart’s 2012 Update to the 2006 Brookings Report, I pointed out a photo on the cover that defines arts and culture as economic drivers.  Silvio mentioned that in a discussion with local leaders in Boise, ID they learned that orchestras and other cultural organizations are owned and supported by the cities in Germany. This is certainly a much different dynamic than in the US.

Sven asked how to encourage people to leave their cars at home and use public transportation.  I noted that, as with any marketing campaign, the key is to make the action “easy, cheap and popular.”  In their cities as in Maine, and it turns out in Germany as well, public perception of who takes the bus impacts…who takes the bus.  How can we increase the use of transit buses, especially for commuters arriving and leaving the city in tight timeframes each weekday? Certainly, convenience and cost are factors, but so is the “coolness factor.”

In addition, I outlined  GrowSmart’s participation in the LD 1223 stakeholder group convened by MaineDOT this summer and fall. The Dept will present to the committee updated rules with a focus on ensuring that, when a proposed development is forecast to significantly increase vehicle traffic, alternative and public transportation options are readily-accepted and easily defined solutions as required in the permitting process.

Also discussed was the work of the Maine Woods Consortium to improve built amenities and hospitality professional training to match the extraordinary natural assets of the destination tourism communities such as Rangeley and Greenville.  This led to a discussion of the balance of authenticity in the locally-owned restaurants.

Education as a fundamental component of community revitalization, as again, perceptions impact action. Families are more inclined to choose to live in neighborhoods that are seen as hosting diverse, quality educational assets. Conversely, and as some Maine communities are well aware, the loss of local public schools can continue population decline.  One Square Kilometer of Education is a strategy Silvio described, in which a perception of missing city resources can be directly addressed.

Discussion also affirmed the shared challenge of retaining youth in small towns and in the power of broadband to address this and other economic development challenges.  Here in Maine, we have the Maine Broadband Coalition, for which GrowSmart Maine serves on the steering committee, to give voice to internet users across the state to secure universal, affordable and equitable access to broadband connectivity that serves both current and future needs.

It is somehow both comforting and perplexing to know that these basic barriers to sustainable prosperity challenge communities large and small; urban, rural and suburban, across the globe. Connections such as this with the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program offer a chance to compare notes and share strategies. GrowSmart is honored to be included in this.