Sen. Chris Johnson

Charting a better future

Wed, 10/03/2012 - 9:00am

In 2003 Maine was growing, but much of the growth was sprawling, as communities lost focus on their downtowns and historical and cultural centers. Believing strongly that Maine is a special place and that we could do better, GrowSmart Maine was founded that year.

The founders didn’t think that the sprawl should typify growth in Maine, with strip malls, big boxes and the abandonment of established downtown areas, forms of growth that erode our downtowns and community centers.

So in 2006 they commissioned a study with a prestigious, nonpartisan think tank, the Brookings Institute, to look into ways for Maine to grow in a sustainable manner. By this, they meant to find ways that Maine’s economy could grow steadily without destroying or even fundamentally changing the things that make Maine such a special place.

The result was a study called Charting Maine’s Future: An Action Plan for Promoting Sustainable Prosperity and Quality Places. One of the key findings of the original study was the importance of investing in an innovation-based economy. Now, 6 years later, their follow-up report looks at what has been done and the way things have changed since the original study, and the results are interesting.

The new study, entitled Charting Maine’s Future: Making Headway, draws several important conclusions about what has been done, what hasn’t, and what still needs to be done. One conclusion is that investment in innovation and preserving quality places has to be ongoing to be successful. The new report states: “The state must commit to a consistent level of investment in innovations and quality places that will strengthen our economy.

“At whatever level Mainers are prepared to support, investments must be done in a way that is reasonably predictable.” Before businesses invest their own money, they want to know that the state is willing to commit to a consistent course of action. Even if the state level of investment is not high, they should be done in a way that allows businesses that depend upon these investments to build a viable business plan. 

When I read these findings, I was immediately struck by the recent refusal of Governor LePage to issue bonds, including bonds that have already been approved by voters. Many of these bonding projects are shovel ready and by pulling the plug, it sends a message of inconsistency to communities and businesses. At a time when we’re asking them to put some skin in the game as job creators, we should also be sending a signal that we encourage investment and will partner with communities and businesses to create jobs and stimulate our economy.

Above all, we need to be consistent in that partnership, not capricious.

The report goes on to discuss some of the successes in Maine’s innovative technology sector. One of the shining examples they point out is biotechnology. Whereas Maine as a whole has only seen job growth of 3 percent since 2002, the biotechnology sector now has gained 29 percent more jobs in the same decade. And the jobs tend to be higher paying as well. Within this sector, the report points to Bigelow Lab’s investments in their Lincoln County Center for Blue Biotechnology Research. This project was made possible through research and development (R&D) funding and it's predicted to generate almost $34 million in new revenue, much of it right here.

While I have to say that I am particularly impressed with this example because of its importance locally, Maine has many other growth examples in biotechnology. The report also talks of the importance of continued investment in other critical sectors, such as information technology, composite materials, and even in improving local farming and aquaculture techniques.

I agree with the report, in that these are the kinds of businesses that will grow and prosper in the future and help Maine carve out its niche in the global economy. These businesses will allow our children to stay and earn a good living here instead of having to leave Maine for a good job. And they are businesses that will allow the quality and character of our communities to keep what makes Maine unique and special.

I’d like to thank GrowSmart Maine for this updated report, and add that I hope they do another a few years down the road. We talk about good jobs, we talk about better wages, we talk about strengthening communities, and providing opportunities for our children to work and settle down here, in Maine. And it is through this kind of planning for the future and taking lessons from the past that together we will realize those accomplishments for our children and grandchildren.

Senator Christopher Johnson lives in Somerville and represents Senate District 20.