Maine is at a unique crossroads. The state needs to grow, but it doesn’t want to change. Maine must jump into the global economy to survive, but can’t wreck the insular culture that helps make it unique. Growth — more jobs, more housing, more money — is necessary and inevitable, but unplanned growth produces a disorganized state plagued with unwieldy sprawl. And nobody wants that, least of all Alan Caron.
Mainers believe everything south of where they are is not the real Maine.
In 2002, Caron, a former business consultant, founded GrowSmart Maine, a nonprofit organization in Yarmouth dedicated to fighting injurious sprawl. In 2005, Caron flew to Washington DC and, armed with little more than a few posterboards and a speech, convinced the prestigious Brookings Institution to spend one year studying the state’s economy and culture and, goddamn it, to figure out how to preserve everything great about us.
Brookings, one of the world’s most respected think tanks, also considered proposals for similar projects from several other states. But Maine’s dilemma caught their attention. Caron spent months juggling his work for GrowSmart, organizing the Brookings researchers’ trips to Maine, and raising nearly $1 million (for their salary and for study implementation costs) from foundations, businesses, and individuals (including former governor Angus King). Brookings compiled a team of nine economists and researchers from Maine and around the country to take the measure of the state. Along the way, Caron’s ode to his home also managed to ruffle some powerful feathers on both sides of the aisle in Augusta.
This sweeping, dense study on some of the most pressing policy questions Maine currently faces is catchily titled “Charting Maine’s Future: An Action Plan for Promoting Sustainable Prosperity and Quality Places” and will be released on October 5 and available at GrowSmartMaine.org. The report includes Brookings’s policy recommendations, which will be the subject of state-wide grassroots groups Caron intends to convene and work with over the next five years. Caron hopes that his report will influence policy-makers throughout Maine during this campaign season and beyond.
“This is our best shot at an unvarnished picture of Maine,” Caron said of the study last spring. “We’ve got a lot of data swirling around [from other studies] and sometimes it conflicts and sometimes it can be self-serving. The Brookings study will be our blueprint for action.”
The project’s stated purpose, according to the GrowSmart Maine Web site, is to take a look at “the relationship between unplanned growth and sprawl, the growing cost of government, and our ability to create and attract tomorrow’s jobs.” But the report will look beyond the bottom line. Among the number of enormous questions it will address is one that triggers strong feelings from Kittery to Fort Kent: how does the state compete in a global economy without compromising a character built on reclusiveness?
Sometime last winter, it occurred to Caron that the “Brookings guys” would need to get out and talk to people to figure out how to answer this last one. Brookings needed to hear from Mainers about what they want to protect and what threatens them. Caron decided to take one of the most prestigious think tanks in the world on an old-fashioned Maine road trip.