GrowSmart Maine faces financial crisis

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YARMOUTH — If GrowSmart Maine fails to raise $60,000 in the next few weeks, the future of the grassroots organization that sponsored the 2006 Brookings Institution report, “Charting Maine’s Future,” will be in jeopardy.

For about five years, the non-profit based out of the Sparkhawk Mill building in Yarmouth village has been working to meld business and environmental interests to improve Maine’s overall quality of place, while expanding job opportunities. But, like many non-profits, donations to the group are down, resulting in significant cuts to programs and staff, Communication Director Christian McNeil said Tuesday.

Staff positions have been reduced from 12 to five plus one contract worker, McNeil said. And work hours have been cut to three days a week.

The financial crunch has caused the group to cancel two sequels to the Brookings report.

“We started fundraising for those a year ago, but it never came through to proceed with them,” he said. “They were on the back burner but now, we’ve shut down all together.”

A model town project with Standish also had to be scaled back, although the group’s original intent was to “take it on the road” as an example for other communities, McNeil said. In the Standish project, he said they worked with the community to create a plan for the town that would focus on growth in the village center, while preserving the outlying rural character of the town.

In addition to cutting short the model town project, he said, financial problems caused the group to cancel its annual summit, which had been held for the past four or five years.

Though GrowSmart still has a lot of interest from big foundations in the state and the region and is hopeful it will receive some grants in the fall, McNeil the group must rely on smaller donors, too.

“The past few months we’ve really maxed out our core of donors we’ve relied on in the past,” he said. “We have to rally the troops. Thousands subscribe to our newsletter and we’re asking them for help.”

When he spoke Tuesday afternoon, McNeil said he was hopeful because, in the few hours since an e-mail plea went out, the group had begun to see an encouraging response from its subscribers.

In the message, President Alan Caron said “GrowSmart Maine is in the midst of a serious crisis that threatens the organization’s future. Only your immediate help and support will allow us to continue operating.”

Though it’s a relatively new non-profit, GrowSmart has a niche in Maine politics and advocacy, McNeil said. In addition to the Brookings report, the organization has been instrumental in the passage of both the statewide building code and an expansion of the historic preservation tax credit that aims to revitalize the state’s downtowns, he said.

“We can’t afford to preserve the quality of place unless there’s job growth – people can’t afford to live here without jobs and businesses can’t attract new workers unless Maine is a nice place to live,” McNeil said. “Ours is the only organization in the state making those connections.”

Peggy Roberts can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or