At the risk of inducing unwelcome flashbacks to high school English classes and the complexities of Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” I am wonder whether we are still mired in the winter of our discontent, or whether, owing to the election of President Barack Obama, a warming trend is imminent.
Surely the inauguration of the president marked a turning point in American history. But as glorious as it is to feel once more invigorated by a sense of possibility, we must still put our shoulders to the wheel and embrace the hard work of revitalizing our economy and improving our fortunes.
Where to begin? Hundreds of billions of dollars have been injected into failing financial institutions, yet credit remains difficult to obtain. The auto industry has promised to wake up and smell the coffee, but improved designs are not yet in production and, in any event, lack of consumer credit is keeping cars on dealers’ lots.
A slowdown in global demand is rippling through local supply chains, affecting everything from appliances to semiconductors, and from construction to outdoor equipment. Unemployment is rising in Maine as it is nationally, and everyone is looking to the federal government for a gargantuan stimulus package that could provide quick relief.
There are national, even global tectonic forces at work, and many actions taken outside of Maine and far away will have great impact.
So what can we do here in Maine? Well, we may be in crisis mode, but such crises create opportunities. Here are some ideas to consider:
• Comparative advantage initiative. Those economies best positioned to grow and prosper are those that leverage their so-called comparative advantages, that is, the assets or attributes that differentiate them from low-cost, commodity economies. We can’t compete with low-wage states and countries that produce dime-a-dozen widgets – nor should we aspire to. But we can, for example, build our capabilities to develop wind and tidal power, because in Maine we are blessed with world-class wind capacity and tidal potential.
As but one example, we should craft incentives for renewable energy developers and for those that manufacture components used in renewable energy generation, so that we can build a cluster of manufacturing excellence that synergizes with an indigenous industry of tomorrow. Building on that emerging cluster, partnerships can then be explored that help our university system to become a globally recognized center for alternative energy research.
• The “East-West Highway.” This is a project whose time has come. We should explore in the most concrete terms not only the footprint but the means of financing this game-changing infrastructure project. Gather the best and brightest, turn them loose with a whiteboard, order in some pizza and lock the door. Tell them to come back out when they have a plan to get this road built.
• Elevate the profile of tourism promotion. Maine has a globally recognized brand; each year millions come here to enjoy our mountains, beaches, trails and towns. Tourism is one of the largest industries in the state, generating $10 billion in sales and supporting 140,000 jobs, according to the State Planning Office.
Currently the Office of Tourism operates as a division within the Department of Economic and Community Development. Given its importance to Maine, tourism should have its own seat at the Cabinet table. With a higher profile nationally, with accountability directly to the governor, and with a bit more funding (one can always hope), the industry will be better served.
• Green jobs initiative. Wwhether we achieve greater energy independence through enhanced generation capabilities, improved infrastructure, conservation, or through new technologies, new skills will be required to attract and support new industries. An initiative to create a green jobs curriculum in our community college system will go a long way toward qualifying workers for new jobs, and for attracting potential investors and employers with a competent workforce. Northern Maine Community College has already developed a training program for wind power technicians, a great idea that could be the start of something big.
• The paradigm shift. Perhaps most important, we need to rekindle a sense of shared enterprise and embrace a partnership that recognizes our shared destiny. Social services and public spaces cannot be maintained without a vibrant economy. Business cannot flourish – and our brand will erode – if our quality of life declines to the point that the best and brightest no longer wish to work here.
Things are bound to get better in this winter of our discontent, but we can hasten the warming trend by giving ourselves permission to embrace the future and chase the dream of a more vibrant and livable Maine.
Perry B. Newman lives in South Portland and is founder of Atlantic Group, a division of Pierce Atwood Consulting in Portland, with clients in North America, Europe and Israel. His column is published monthly.