Inside the TEDxDirigo conference

By MIKE MILIARD  |  September 14, 2011

Williams's mother wanted him to stick around — she promised to buy him a car if he'd stay in Maine. But Williams (who is black) wanted out. Maine was a beautiful state, but one that offered "no diversity, no jobs, no connections," he said.

Earlier that morning, we'd listened to Steve Wessler recount two disturbing instances of racial violence in Maine. But growing up here, says Williams, "racism wasn't an issue" for him. Sure, everyone in Portland was "either Irish Catholic or Italian Catholic," and grew up in "either East Deering or Munjoy Hill," but he never experienced much bigotry first-hand. It was more a general sense of moribundity, he says, that spurred him to move to Washington, DC, and stay there for nearly two decades.

But four years ago, weary of city life — and intuiting that things had started to change in his hometown — Williams moved back. What he's seen here so far has been impressive. Now the city, small though it is, does have a growing cultural diversity — 55 languages spoken in the schools of a city with just 70,000 people. "To see that happen in Portland is just phenomenal," he said.

Not everything is rosy. What Portland doesn't have is a diversity of incomes, says Williams. He'd like to see a lot more knowledge workers and IT professionals around these parts. He wishes more of his tech startup clients were from here at home. But, he said, "I don't see a vision for that" coming from policymakers.

We were joined by Steven Bushey, who moved here from Vermont 10 years ago and runs a profitable cartography company, Map Adventures, with his wife from their Peaks Island home. He loves the blend of urban and rural the city affords, he said. But he also noted that health-care costs in Maine are prohibitive. And if Vermont succeeds with its attempt to push ahead with a single-payer system, "companies like mine could be out of here." Would he move back? He could be convinced, he said.

Also at the table was Chris Hallweaver, a former software exec who just last month moved from Yarmouth to Caribou to be general manager for a Van Buren-based startup called Northern Girl, which will process and pack organic vegetables, fresh from the County.

He admitted it's been a "culture shock." He's been schooled on the fierce territoriality of those who are from the St. John Valley (versus those who are simply from Caribou). Recently he was startled at a town meeting when an argument broke out in heated French. And, of course, the economy is dire.

But TED attracts the sort of risk-taking true believers who are willing to relocate nearly five hours north, from an urban cultural center into a remote and rural economy, to help fix the problem. As Hallweaver tweeted after the event: "Our economic well-being will be enhanced once we relearn how Maine can feed Maine."

If no one at the table seemed itchy to go charge the ramparts and immediately change the world that afternoon, the event had made an impression. As Hallweaver wrote in another post-TED tweet: "Energy abounded today."

Williams seemed similarly inspired about the state of his state. "This conference," he said, "shows that Portland, Maine, has grown."


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