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Opinion: Maine needs a leader to step up for rural communities

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2017-02-04

As seen in the Bangor Daily News: https://bangordailynews.com/2017/02/04/opinion/editorials/maine-needs-a-...

Maine’s rural communities are struggling. They face a declining population, especially among young people. The state’s aging population poses problems for the future of the workforce. And poverty is hitting these communities the hardest. They need to find a way to attract new residents, improve their local economies or manage their decline.

A number of nonprofits work on the issues that matter to these towns, but no one is putting all the different pieces together to form a cohesive plan that answers the question, “How can rural communities make the best possible decisions about their future?”

Maine’s rural development council, Maine Rural Partners, was formed by the federal government in 1990 to do this. It closed in September after federal funds and grants dried up. Other state councils have been able to succeed and thrive, though, so doing community-building work is certainly possible. Maine just needs to learn from prior mistakes.

Robin Beck began to make some headway into what a rural development council should be doing — similar to what the Vermont Council on Rural Development does in collaborating with that state’s rural communities — when she became executive director of Maine Rural Partners in 2015.

But it was too little, too late. The organization had no solid, independent fundraising base from which to grow, when federal money stopped coming.

What’s needed is another try. A leader, someone familiar with the challenges facing rural communities, is essential. This would be someone skilled at guiding people in communities toward decisions about what they can do about their pressing challenges.

Vermont’s council, for instance, helps towns with their strategic visioning process, making sure to involve as many people as possible in setting priorities. Once the town decides what it wants to do, the council aims to connect the town with advice and funding.

Efforts in Vermont have led to results like developing more affordable housing options, task forces to combat the heroin epidemic, downtown redesigns, Wi-Fi zones, local concerts to attract a younger population and more walkways and bike paths to connect the community.

But one person or entity can’t do it all. Any renewed effort in Maine will need members of the community and government to join them. It will also need funding and support from the private sector.

A new council wouldn’t have to work alone. Paul Costello, the executive director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development, has said that Vermont, along with other state rural development councils, would be willing to help Maine.

GrowSmart Maine’s Executive Director Nancy Smith said that if a new council were to form, she would consider GrowSmart Maine a member. Undoubtedly many others would be willing to help.

Whether it’s by reviving Maine Rural Partners or starting an entirely new organization with the same objective, a big-picture look at rural Maine is necessary to prompt communities to prepare for their future.