Jym St. Pierre Saves Maine's Economy

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Melvin Udall
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Jym St. Pierre Saves Maine's Economy

From yesterday's Brunswick Times Record; it's nice to know the Hollywood crowd and it's local reps have our situation figured out.

quote: On the trail of the creative economy

letters@TimesRecord.Com 08/27/2004 By Jym St. Pierre, Times Record ContributorMaine's economy is undergoing fundamental changes. For generations, rural communities have relied on the Fab Four: fishing, farming, forestry and fun. But employment in the first three has been shrinking for years, a trend expected to continue.That leaves the Fun sector to pick up a lot of slack. These days, a key part of Fun is called "the creative economy" "” the arts, culture and technology sectors. It encompasses nontraditional activities like performing and visual arts, heritage tourism and high-tech industries. Studies show that the creative economy has been growing faster than the economy as a whole. In 2002, creative economy sectors directly provided about 10 percent of Maine employment: more than 63,000 workers and $2.5 billion in payroll. From 1997 to 2002, employment in arts and culture alone grew by 24 percent.Many people are working to put Maine on the cusp of this emerging trend. Several recent conferences have brought them together to brainstorm how we can accelerate the transition to sustainable economic development. Last spring Maine Businesses for Social Responsibility sponsored presentations by Michael Shuman, executive director of Community Ventures. He preached the small is beautiful gospel, illustrated by an intriguing strategy to transform the Katahdin region's economy.In April, business representatives, policymakers and citizens gathered in Farmington to strategize about "Maximizing Shared Assets in Western Maine." Story after story emerged about inspiring home-grown entrepreneurs converting shuttered storefronts into new bakeries, bookstores and galleries.In May, nearly 700 people converged on the former Bates Manufacturing Mill in Lewiston for the first "Blaine House Conference on Maine's Creative Economy." I grew up a couple of miles from the mill complex that was Lewiston-Auburn's economic backbone for more than a century.Like many New England mill towns, Lewiston has mobilized private developers, with federal and state assistance, in an effort to reuse a million square feet of idle factory space. The transformation is working. A fabrics business run by former Bates Manufacturing workers once again produces world-class bedspreads. Quality furniture and guitar crafting firms are also housed in the old mill. Nearby, St. Mary's Church is being recycled as a cultural center.Several Blaine House Conference speakers cited communities elsewhere that are reinventing themselves. Wanting to experience that creative energy for myself, I headed south. In Massachusetts' Pioneer Valley, Shelburne Falls and other early mill towns are undergoing a cultural renaissance. The Berkshires' North Adams, led by mayor John Barrett, is rebuilding around a world-class Museum of Contemporary Art.I explored the mother lode of historic preservation projects, from the Hudson River Valley, through Princeton and Philadelphia to Harper's Ferry, W.V. The Mid Atlantic states are tapping tourists' deep interest in heritage by protecting and promoting countless places of historic importance.I traveled the Shenandoah Valley to Great Smoky Mountains National Park and back up the 600-mile Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive. Along the Parkway, Folk Art Centers overflow with authentic works by members of the Southern Highland Crafts Guild.In downtown Asheville, N.C., I toured the remarkable Grove Arcade, built in 1929 to be "the most elegant building in America." Following decades of disuse, it was acquired by the city and leased to a foundation that is transforming it once again into an attractive cluster of retail stores.Near Asheville are two wonderful outdoor education centers, one focusing on wildlife and the other chronicling the birth of scientific forestry and conservation in America. The centers are creative state-federal-nonprofit partnerships. What relevance does this have for Maine? Plenty. Valuable lessons can be learned from other regions' development innovations. One observation particularly struck me: Parks are people magnets, especially national parks. Though some gateway communities need to manage growth better, parks are the salvation of our premier landscapes and cultural sites. A Maine Woods National Park should be a core component of our economic strategy.Here are several other actions that would help sustain Maine's economy:"” Arts and cultural attractions can be better incorporated into tourism promotion. "” The Legislature should create grants for the arts like those it has enacted to encourage clustering of innovative technology industries. "” North Woods communities such as Greenville and Millinocket should transform remoteness from an economic liability to an asset. "” Voters should insist that their legislators reverse this month's short-sighted failure to put a Land for Maine's Future bond on November's ballot. Letting LMF funds run dry puts major public and private conservation investments at risk. Manufacturing will continue to be important to Maine, but the creative economy is gradually supplanting many old-line industries. Sustaining our economy and quality of life require that we preserve the best of Maine's natural heritage and safeguard our cultural mystique. As Ralph Waldo Emerson well understood: "A creative economy is the fuel of magnificence."
Jym St. Pierre is Maine director of Restore: The North Woods