Camden Harbor, Maine, where civic leaders have taken notice of a decline in population and are mapping strategies to reverse the trend.
Trendy Brevetto Kitchen & Wine Bar is bustling on a recent Thursday, but not with a typical happy hour crowd. Less rowdy and mostly professional, the men and women wearing name tags are not here to hook up but link up. They’re members of Midcoast Magnet, one of several regional groups working to halt a population slide in one of the USA’s most picturesque states.
Maine was one of three states whose population declined from 2008 to 2009 (Michigan and Rhode Island were the others). For the first time in 209 years, neighboring New Hampshire has more people than Maine, according to Census estimates.
The drop in Maine stems mostly from young people leaving for school and jobs and the birth rate dropping as those left behind age. Maine’s median age (half are younger, half are older) is 42.2 — oldest in the USA.
Maine traditionally has been divided between natives — “Mainers” — and those “from away,” but this time, both are reaching out to bridge the gap.
Young and old at the mixer pause for small-group exercises. That night: How can you use your skills and connections to help someone else in the group?
The networking is keenly significant for hundreds of small Maine towns struggling to hang on to people and stave off declines in the tax base, the labor force and investment.
“Midcoast Magnet’s mission is to attract, connect and retain talented people,” says Amber Heffner, a “from away” who now heads the mostly volunteer organization. Heffner, 42, moved from Chicago, married a lobsterman and founded Little Harbor Technology, a Web design and database company in nearby Rockland.
Skip Bates, the former head, is a Mainer. The Bangor Savings Bank officer rattles off efforts to attract people and business: an initiative to bring high-speed Internet to rural Maine, a venture capital fund, grants to help new technology ventures and a “Juice 2.0 Conference” “powering the creative economy.”
An aging state
People flock to Maine’s spectacular coastline, steeped in tradition and dependent on lobstering, shipbuilding and tourism. Many out-of-staters who stay are retired and older. Maine, 95% white, has drawn few immigrants.
“We project that in 20 years, a quarter of our population will be of retirement age or higher,” says state economist Michael LeVert. “We have to make sure that when folks in Boston or New Jersey think about starting a family or starting a business, they think of Maine,” LeVert says.
Two-thirds of the state’s 1.3 million people live in the lower third. The timber and paper mill industries that supported rural northern counties near Canada consolidated, and thousands of jobs disappeared.
“Clearly, the place has been grappling for 25 years with massive restructuring,” says Mark Muro, director of policy for the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program.
Maine’s self-reliance and local autonomy, rooted in New England’s tradition of direct democracy and town hall meetings, may have stymied efforts for statewide and regional cooperation, but resistance wanes as the state shrinks and ages.
“The sheer impact of the Great Recession took some very comfortable communities and made them rethink their future,” says Dan Bookham, who runs the Camden-Rockport-Lincolnville Chamber of Commerce.
‘Let’s all get out of here’
Frank Pavalkis, 24, who grew up near here, describes a common refrain of Maine’s high school seniors: “Let’s all get out of here.”
He did and went to Boston’s Northeastern University but eventually returned. He studies medical technology at the University College at Rockland and hopes to be hired by Pen Bay Healthcare, the large medical system in the area.
Among current efforts to revitalize Maine:
•The Council on Quality of Place works at turning the state’s assets — natural and man-made — into jobs, products and services.
•The Ocean Energy Institute in Rockland is researching offshore wind energy research.
•Old paper mill equipment now makes molds for handbags and soccer cleats manufactured in China.
Young people “love the lifestyle … the quality of place … the scale of the community,” says Laurie Lachance, president of the Maine Development Foundation. “We can shine the light on those things.”
Youth is sprouting in the state Legislature. At 34, Hannah Pingree is the youngest woman in the USA to be a state House speaker. When she was first elected at 25, there were seven legislators age 40 or younger. Now there are 25.
Bettina Doulton was a hard-driving mutual funds manager at Fidelity in Boston — until she bought the Cellardoor Vineyard in Lincolnville. She says she has found the change of life she was seeking. “This area is a petri dish for entrepreneurs,” she says.
Via USA Today