Maine offers an enviable quality of life, with fabulous natural scenery, a laid-back lifestyle, low cost of living, safe neighborhoods and outdoor activities everywhere.
What it doesn’t have is everything else, or at least that’s what some people think.
It turns out sandy beaches, cute villages and peace and quiet on their own aren’t quite enough to attract the kind of businesses and workers needed to stimulate Maine’s sluggish economy and forestall a demographic winter threatening the nation’s oldest state.
That’s the takeaway from new research from Portland-based Digital Research Inc., commissioned by the Department of Economic and Community Development.
Responses from out-of-state focus groups and a 1,000-person online survey indicate young U.S. professionals think Maine is beautiful and friendly, but rural, cold and remote. Many believe Maine does not have the high-tech sector, large companies, robust economy or cultural amenities they want in a place to live.
“Isolated,” said a member of one focus group in Minneapolis, describing the state. “It’s one of the furthest areas from the rest of the country. It probably takes eight hours to get to Providence, Rhode Island.”
A consumer from a Baltimore group saw Maine as blue collar. “I picture people in plaid – men and women.” And an employer from Boston summed up the state’s economy as “lumber, lobsters and tourism.”
In most cases, people didn’t think about Maine at all – few survey respondents had any concrete knowledge about the state and a quarter said they knew nothing about it.
The image of Maine as a frigid wilderness doesn’t match reality, especially in the thriving southern third of the state, said Ed McKersie, president of Pro Search Inc., a Portland recruitment firm and founder of Live + Work in Maine, a program to encourage visitors to the state to relocate here.
“What Maine has is a marketing problem,” McKersie said.
“We have done such a good job of marketing ourselves as Vacationland that it has overshadowed the fact that there are people working up here; there are employers” and high-tech industries, McKersie said. “We don’t even show up on the radar screen.”
Researchers from DRI selected employed, college-educated adults under age 55 with a household income of at least $55,000. Those are the kind of workers industry leaders said the state needs to attract, according to associate research director Traverse Burnett. Respondents were screened so only people who would consider moving to another state were questioned. Research focused on states in the Northeast, mid-Atlantic and Midwest.
Most respondents were attracted by Maine’s low crime rate and short commutes compared to where they live, Burnett said. Many said the state offered most of what they thought of in an ideal place to live.
“It felt like people were tired of living such a harried life in the suburbs; they think Maine offers a different way of life, more laid-back, more relaxed,” he said.
While some of people’s stereotypes about Maine hold true, others seemed outdated or inaccurate.
People felt it would be hard to find a job or higher education in Maine. They believed the state didn’t have good restaurants, entertainment or cultural attractions. Maine’s reputation for long, cold winters was one of the top reasons people would not consider relocating to the state.
About one in five people would automatically consider moving to Maine, but most needed convincing, Burnett said. He found that was a lot easier if people had visited the state.
“One of the key takeaways is that the more people knew about Maine as it is today, and they get over their preconceptions about the state being completely rural, they love it and are willing to consider moving here,” he said. “They are not thinking about it without any sort of prompting.”
Recruiters for Idexx and Wex Inc., two of the state’s fastest-growing tech companies, have come to the same conclusion. Both actively target candidates with Maine connections or “boomerangs” – Mainers who left to pursue careers and education and can be lured back to put down roots.
“People who have lived here know the secret – the quality of life and how fantastic it is to move here,” said Giovani Twigge, chief human resources officer at Idexx. Twigge, who moved to the Portland area from Chicago eight years ago, admits he didn’t know anything about Maine before he took the job.
Despite its low national profile, Maine is safe, affordable and has good schools, three top things people look for in a place to live, Twigge said.
“Half a million Mainers have left to work elsewhere – we need to reinforce that to them, that these are the qualities and this is why you want to come back to Maine,” Twigge said.
Idexx, a veterinary diagnostic firm, is preparing a $62 million headquarters expansion in Westbrook that may create 600 jobs.
Convincing people unfamiliar with Maine to move here can be challenging, Twigge acknowledged. At the same time, it just takes a short trip to the Portland area to get newcomers on board. Idexx is a leader in its field, he said, and he doesn’t feel its location is a disadvantage.
“They just need to see what the company is about, the environment; that is easy to sell once we get them here.”
Maine’s high tax burden, expensive housing and the uncertainty that a spouse or partner will be able to find a job are hurdles for potential candidates, Twigge said.
Brigitte Emmons-Touchette, director of global talent acquisition at Wex, related similar experiences getting top-tier candidates to move to Maine. Wex, a global payment-processing firm, just broke ground on a new Portland waterfront headquarters.
“If we can get people here, it is a done deal,” she said. “At Wex, we are going to expand your career opportunities with a global footprint, and at the end of the day you can paddleboard in Casco Bay.”
CITY SLICKERS LOOK ELSEWHERE
Candidates dead-set on a big-city lifestyle in New York City or San Francisco aren’t likely to choose Portland, and Maine’s seasons can be a tough sell, Emmons-Touchette admitted.
“In the month of March we should shut down all recruiting,” she joked.
Maine will rely on transplants from across the U.S. and internationally, but it also needs to develop an in-state workforce by persuading young Mainers to stay in the state and train for the skills employers need, said Joseph McDonnell, a professor of public policy at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service in Portland. Attracting workers and keeping people in the state may mean offering incentives like student-loan forgiveness or housing assistance, he added.
“I think you need a public-private partnership with a significant amount of resources that is going to recognize this is Maine’s leading problem that is going to require strategies that go beyond anything we have up till now,” McDonnell said.
McKersie, from Live + Work in Maine, agrees. Compared to other states, like Michigan, Maine has done almost nothing to attract a workforce, McKersie said.
He hopes a new administration and Legislature look closely at the results of the DRI study and start thinking seriously about how to change the narrative and get more people to consider Maine as a place to grow a career, not just to visit.
“The data is there that says we need to target these folks,” he said. “We are not spending millions of dollars in Maine to do this and we should be.”