Maine has a tourism sales pitch that works – maybe a little too well.
A survey commissioned by the Department of Economic and Community Development found that the lobsters-and-lighthouses message that draws millions of visitors each year also may keep people from considering Maine as a permanent destination. For a state facing demographic winter, that’s bad news.
Respondents to the survey – which targeted college-educated adults in the Northeast, mid-Atlantic and Midwest who would consider moving to another state – saw Maine as beautiful, friendly, rural and remote. In other words, a great place to visit for a relaxing respite, but lacking in opportunities and entertainment.
One called Maine “isolated,” while another said it “probably takes eight hours to get to Providence.” An employer from Boston said Maine was “lumber, lobsters and tourism.”
Those statements aren’t wildly wrong, depending on which part of the state you’re in – it is eight hours from Madawaska to Rhode Island’s capital – but they certainly are incomplete.
To attract more people to Maine – an absolute necessity if the state is going to grow and thrive – we need to do a better job telling the whole story.
That story includes the quality of life in Maine. It’s safe here. We have good schools and strong communities. It is relatively affordable, and the commutes around our cities are nothing compared to larger metro areas. The food is great, and the cultural attractions better than you’d think.
And, of course, it’s beautiful, with the oceans or mountains never far away.
When it gets through, this message works. Hiring executives with world-class Maine companies say that once they get people here – and get them thinking about Maine as place to live – it’s an easy sell.
But Maine needs to attract about 10,000 workers a year just to replace the residents turning 65, and we can’t possibly bring every one of them here for a visit. Instead, we’ve got to do a better job shaping the perception of the state among those who may want to move here, not only people who have never lived here, but also those who have moved away and may consider coming back home.
There are initiatives with this mission in Maine, but they’re not nearly enough. State government has to commit significant resources to attracting students and workers. The lack of growth and dearth of workers is just affecting too many facets of the state economy.
Besides selling the state’s good points, policymakers can also address its shortcomings. Gov. LePage has tried unsuccessfully to create a fund that pays for student debt relief for people who commit to living and working in Maine. That would address some of the concerns over the cost of housing and taxes, and lower pay, held by people looking to move here.
Maine needs to grow – it is the greatest challenge facing the state, and should be the first priority of the next governor.
Whoever gets that job can start by making sure that people hear the full story about our state.