How Will COVID Reshape Maine Communities?

How Will COVID Reshape Maine Communities?

Ben Smith, AICP

North Star Planning & GrowSmart Maine Board Chair

COVID has pushed Maine’s already super-heated real estate market up into overdrive. Going into 2020, the housing market in Southern Maine was already running on all cylinders, as projects sold as fast as they were approved, and many communities struggled with issues related to changing character, loss of open space and overstretched staff and services. Ever higher growth pressures in these types of communities have led to conversations about how to best protect the character of these places, meter growth and delay or offset costs associated with schools and roads.

There are other communities, however, where this uptick in growth is a new phenomenon, and it is easier to see the opportunities associated with growth.

Some coastal and mountain communities that have traditionally been seen as vacation destinations – places like Rangeley, Carrabassett Valley, and Wells – saw seasonal homes occupied for much of the year in 2020. It will be interesting to see if these communities were temporary refuges for people who already owned homes or condos in these places, or if the growth will “stick” as the reality of remote working continues to open eyes and options.

Other communities like Caribou, Farmington, Machias, Millinocket, Greenville, and many others, which have long served as the economic and activity hubs for larger regions, already have the infrastructure and capacity to support more people. Smaller urban centers are also an attractive destination for people moving to Maine to be part of smaller communities while still being close to amenities like well-ranked schools, food delivery, active downtowns, and good internet access. The challenges in these places are likely to be related to aging housing stock and building up the services – notably child care – needed to serve new members of the community.

As more 2020 Census data comes out later this year, we’ll be looking to see how much of this new growth is reflected in the national data. Since much of that migration started after the April 1 Census snapshot and continues today, local communities will likely have to rely more on local data like building permits and school enrollment, as well as future population estimates, to best understand how COVID has reshaped their demographics – and changed their prospects for the future.