This is not really an essay about China. Mostly not, anyway. Over the last month, I’ve been back in the United States traveling. While this trip has taken me to New York, New Hampshire, and Georgia, I spent most of my time in my home state of Maine. There, I was struck by the parallels between the economic and demographic struggles of rural China and rural Maine. While both regions face challenges that are similar in many ways, they face these challenges with approaches reflective of their [different] respective political cultures.
I have mentioned before that my interest in China’s rural economic development is motivated by its connection to my own life. I want to see China’s experiments with rural rejuvenation succeed, not just for aesthetic enjoyment, and the benefit it has for the citizens affected, but for their practical case study value.
With that background in mine, I have decided to try writing about Maine. To help make it a little more insightful than just me and my personal observations, I also interviewed around ten people for this piece, including the current President of the Maine State Senate.
Chapter 1: Keep Going North Until You Hit Canada
Maine is as far north and east as you can go in the USA without stumbling into Canada. We are a rural state, a sparsely-populated one, and one of the poorer states in the country (44th smallest economy and 40th lowest GDP/capita. We are generally known for lobsters and Acadia National Park and Stephen King novels and that’s it.
I come from the even more sparsely-populated northern part of the state, in Aroostook County. There are currently only 67,000 people in Aroostook, so don’t be too surprised if you’ve never met one of us out in the wild. In Aroostook, we drive pick-up trucks with hunting rifles in the gun rack, listen to country music, and inject a remarkable number of Québécois French phrases into our heavily-accented English (a patois which I lost as soon as I went to college, but inevitably pops out when I return).
The “Crown of Maine”, Aroostook is a geographically large county, but has just two “cities,” Caribou and Presque Isle. Maine is a 7-hour drive from tip to tip. Image: etravelmaine.com
Maine has the lowest violent crime rate in the nation and one of the lowest rates of property crime. We never lock our homes or our cars. Hell, we usually leave our cars running with keys in the ignition in the parking lot in the winter so the heat stays on. Jeezum rice, it’s cold up here! Who could steal a car anyway? Everyone already knows what everyone drives. You’d never get away with it.
My hometown is Fort Kent, population: 3800. This is the northern endpoint of US Route 1 (the southern terminus is in Key West, Florida).
We have an international border crossing into New Brunswick, Canada. You’re equally likely to hear French or English spoken on the street. Your friends from southern Maine have heard of Fort Kent, but they have never been. They’ve always wanted to visit, but it’s just so far.
In the 80s, Fort Kent had multiple bars, restaurants, and a downtown that might be described as lively - rowdy even, on the weekends. Then, the local forestry industry dried up. Now, it’s a town that’s been treading water and barely keeping its head dry for three decades. Very little changes. The population slowly trickles down. New restaurants open, then close again. This year, just 62 students graduated from the high school.
We don’t have much of an economy to speak of up here. Historically, it was dominated by the production of forestry products and small-scale agriculture, with a bit of light manufacturing. While harvesting of wood and production of paper/forestry products is an important industry in Aroostook County, and a provider of well-paid blue-collar jobs, it is now struggling, due to cheaper international competition, reduction of paper use in a digitized world, and lack of workers.
In 1970, the paper industry employed a quarter of Maine’s total workforce. Today, production of paper products, wood products, and timber harvesting together employ fewer than 15,000 people statewide. The single largest employment sector in Aroostook is healthcare and health services, which is bound to keep growing as our population ages. The poverty rate in Aroostook is around 15% and likely closer to 20% or higher in Fort Kent. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say the town is sick, but I wouldn’t say it’s healthy either.
As for the other industries from history, small-scale farming is rapidly disappearing too, while the light manufacturing is all but gone (mirroring its general decline in the US). Tourism has arisen as a new third-place contributor to GDP (behind wood harvesting/processing and agriculture) but still faces many challenges. I’ll talk more about tourism in Part 2 later. But for now, just know that our economy is…not great.
Chapter 2: Where Have All the Workers Gone?
Most of the country has a labor shortage right now. But for Maine, shortage is an insufficiently urgent word…it’s already a full-blown crisis, especially up in Aroostook.
Near my home is a gas station/convenience store owned by one of my teachers from elementary school. He told me after 15 years of running the place, he and his wife are going to put the place up for sale at the end of this year. This is not because business is bad, but because they’re exhausted. Even with the minimum wage set at $15/hour in Maine, they can’t find someone to work the cash register. They’re simply burnt out from working at the store 7 days a week, during what are supposed to be their retirement years. I hope the next owners are up for the task…(if they can find a buyer).
Aroostook’s population has been declining steadily for decades. Just like in China, young people of working age have few reasons to stick around the countryside, and increasingly choose to leave the area. While it’s not as extreme as what you’ll see in some Chinese towns, (which sometimes have literally nothing but elderly people and small children) we certainly seem to be trending in that direction.
While the factors contributing to Maine’s sluggish economic performance are of course more complex than just labor shortages, the lack of workers is certainly one thing that everyone can agree on as being a huge problem. Entry-level workers, skilled workers, professional workers, it’s all the same. There are not enough people to fill jobs in Maine. The “Help Wanted” signs in storefronts across the state in everywhere from fast food to vehicle service centers are as ubiquitous as flannel shirts and orange hunting caps.
A look at the growth trend of Maine’s labor force for the past few decades tells the story clearly:
Maine Department of Labor: Workforce Outlook 2012-2022
The shrinkage in the labor force has been especially pronounced in rural areas like Aroostook. That’s not shocking, considering the population overall has been shrinking for decades. Our communities are just withering away.
Not only is our population shrinking, but it’s also getting older. Families are having fewer children as cultural norms change and the cost of raising children keeps rising (Maine is full of Catholics allergic to contraception…those families used to be BIG).
Meanwhile, many young people are being siphoned away to more attractive careers downstate, or out of state. I think anyone who has spent time traveling in the Chinese countryside will see the similarities here.
Median age rising from 45 to 49 in just one decade
In the Making Maine Work 2022 white paper published by the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, 500 Maine employers were surveyed on their priorities for the next Maine governor and the greatest percentage - 46% - selected “availability of entry-level workers” as their TOP concern, tied with energy costs. And that’s in the middle of an actual energy crisis.
But it gets even worse. Not just entry-level workers, but “availability of skilled/technical workers” and “availability of professional workers” were ALSO among the top priorities, both affecting more than 40% of the businesses surveyed. This tells me there simply aren’t enough people to work at any level in Maine.
Besides contributing to business closures, this has a dire impact on Aroostook’s ability to attract employers. Even if companies with well-paid, year-round jobs want to set up shop here, they’re going to struggle to find people to hire. These companies would have be extremely patient, or have some very strong motivation to come here in the first place.
Recently, such a potential employer arrived in the region, Valt Enterprizes, a high-tech space and defense company that wants to use the small airport in the nearby city of Presque Isle to develop launch systems for satellites. I imagine Aroostook’s low population density is a big point of attraction; falling debris from any failed launches are unlikely to land on anyone or anything of value.
Valt is the first tenant of what is planned to become the Presque Isle Aerospace Research Park. Valt is looking to eventually hire over 130 people, including engineers, research scientists, machinists, etc. If this actually happens, it would likely become a major employer (and taxpayer) in the region. It’s exciting for local economic planners to see Aroostook directly benefitting from Maine’s intended new space and aerospace industry.
A job post from Valt’s LinkedIn page
But opportunities like this highlight a chicken and egg paradox that arises when trying to attract such an employer. Even if there are enough workers in the region to fill these jobs, they will require specific training and degrees to fill these positions. Students will only choose certain educational tracks when job prospects after graduation look promising, but employers will struggle to see this region as attractive to locate their business if they believe they can find enough talents to hire. In this case, the local branch of the University of Maine in Presque Isle doesn’t have a 4-year engineering program, nor does the local community college have a 2-year machining program. Where will these talents come from?
To try to get around this, Valt has been forced to work with directly with local schools to provide job training just to fill their CNC machining positions:
Screenshot is taken from a local news report
Meanwhile, I imagine the positions that need engineering degrees will require employees to be hired in from outside the county, or even outside the state, to be relocated to Presque Isle. Not every employer will be willing to go through such a process. Finding one that will is crucial to breaking out of this chicken/egg paradox, which is why economic planners up here are so excited about Valt. But based on what I’ve been hearing from everyone, I’m afraid they’re going to struggle to find the people they need.
All of this is strongly reminiscent of rural regions in China, where the situation is probably even more dire. For instance, China has a great deal of trouble even securing teachers to work in rural areas, a serious and ongoing problem with no immediate structural fix in sight. I fear Maine will also be in such a state very soon.
Chapter 3: Who’s in Charge of Fixing This Stuff?
On this trip, I found a new business in Fort Kent that seemed to be doing well, a coffee shop called the Red Devil Roast. Not filter-drip, but a guy roasting his own beans and making barista espresso drinks, in a part of the world where most people have been happy drinking sludgy drip coffee their whole lives.
He told me he had previously traveled the world while in the military and sampled high-quality coffee, and eventually decided that what his hometown really needed was proper lattes…so he made it happen. Before opening his shop, he had to spend time learning to roast and prepare the beans. To cover those startup costs, he had applied for (and received) a small business loan from the Northern Maine Development Commission (NMDC).
I had never heard of NMDC before, but I took a look at their website and realized that if anyone would have opinions and thoughts about the strategic economic planning of Aroostook County, it would be these guys. NDMC is headquartered in the city of Caribou, Maine, not far from Fort Kent. So, I gave them a call and set up an interview/chat session with their Director of Economic Development, Jon Gulliver.
Jon told me NMDC is a nonprofit designated by the federal government to provide economic development services to rural communities in Northern Maine. They help towns with economic consulting, marketing, tourism development, attracting employers, etc. Since the 70s, they have also had a lending and community grant finance program, which is what the Red Devil Roast had taken advantage of.
He told me that when it comes to economic and strategic planning for small communities in the area, NMDC covers and provides support for much of the county. While some of the larger towns and cities have their own dedicated person to do strategic planning for the town, most will piggyback on NMDC’s services. NMDC is probably the closest thing Aroostook has to an organization whose job it is to “save” our communities.
I discovered NMDC is a membership organization - regional communities pay annual dues in order to use its services. Jon told me the dues only cover a very small portion of their annual budget though - most of it arrives via federal grants. As it shuttles these resources to local business owners and would-be entrepreneurs, NMDC’s public-private partnership identity becomes clearer to me.
One of NMDC’s long-term strategic goals for itself is to become self-sufficient and not so reliant on federal grants for funding. This is something their community financing and loans division has already achieved. This division provides bridge financing for businesses like the Red Devil Roast that are too early-stage or too uncertain for commercial banks to be willing to provide loans.
For me, this is reminiscent of China’s Rural Credit Cooperatives, established by the People’s Bank of China to offer micro-finance services in rural areas. But, the rest of NMDC’s role doesn’t seem to have a really clear corollary to any institutions I’ve encountered before in China.
Image source: China Daily
I told Jon about my experiences traveling around the Chinese countryside, along with some of the initiatives put into place as part of the New Countryside program, including infrastructure development and creation of tourism/commercial enterprises that will hopefully entice young people to come to live and work in these communities.
“Yes, that’s the ‘if you build it, they will come’ approach” Jon said. “At the beginning, we also wanted to have a plan to grow our communities with people from outside. But now we’re just focused on trying to keep who we still have here”.
Jon told me that that during the early stages of the pandemic, Aroostook’s population actually grew for the first time in years, as people in cities bolted for the countryside. The gain was short-lived, however, and the long-term trend of population decline resumed again last year. The Making Maine Work white paper also pointed out that many of these new migrants still work remotely for out-of-state employers, which does little to alleviate the labor crisis.
Obviously, Jon knows more about the details of Aroostook’s economic development than I do, but I can’t help but feel that setting an objective to “not lose people” is a bit of a low bar. In that scenario, even if you succeed, you’re just treading water, not making any forward progress. I feel it should be possible to attract new people into the region while simultaneously creating reasons for locals to stay here, instead of either/or. But possibly (even probably) I am just being naïve about a bunch of complexities I’ve not considered. At least an organization like NMDC exists. At least someone is trying to do something, although the approach taken is very different from what I’ve seen in China. Do organizations like this exist on a county level everywhere in the country?
Chapter 4: What About Tourism?
Besides lobbying to bring in employers, Jon Gulliver at the Northern Maine Development Commission told me that a key part of NMDC’s work in northern Maine is helping communities position themselves better for tourism. Although tourism is booming in Maine overall, reaching almost 8 billion USD in spending last year, my home of Aroostook County only sees a tiny fraction of that - just 2 or 3%. Most of those dollars go to the Maine coast, or outdoor recreation at inland lakes farther south. But we get a bit.
Tourism is basically a three-season affair in Aroostook. We get about 3-4 months of camping and fishing in the summer, 3-4 months of snowmobiling, skiing, and ice fishing in the winter, 1-2 months of hunting and leaf watching in the fall, and 1-2 months of downtime in the spring (also known as “mud season” locally, for reasons that should be obvious). According to a local news report citing the Maine State Office of Tourism, Aroostook’s tourism revenue is strongest (by a small margin) in the summer (a surprise to me).
The same news report went on to speculate that agri-tourism could be a potentially untapped opportunity for Aroostook, and that more resources should be put into developing this sector. The concept of agri-tourism focuses on connecting farming/ agriculture with tourism, by bringing visitors to a farm or ranch to spend money. I think Aroostook is perfect for this, but it will require a leap of faith from some entrepreneurial minds with more of that “if we build it, they will come” thinking. It would take an adjustment to how locals see themselves and their livelihoods…they are accustomed to farming for food…farming out of practicality…not farming so that nature-starved urbanites can get eco-titillated. But it pays.
Mississippi agritourism. Image is from farmflavor.com
China’s trying something very similar right now as part of its Rural Rejuvenation campaign. If China’s approach works well, it could become a great case study in a few years. Until we see how it works, it can’t really serve as a model of success yet. But it is interesting.
Besides newfangled agri-tourism, what about “regular” sport and recreational tourism? Camping, fishing, hiking, hunting, snowshoeing, skiing, snowmobiling…Aroostook has great resources for all of that. Could expansion of these classic tourism draws be the solution that saves northern Maine?
It’s possible…in theory. But to be honest, Aroostook doesn’t really have a competitive advantage for these things versus the rest of the state. Of course, we have gorgeous lakes and rivers and forests, but frankly the entire state is completely stuffed with gorgeous lakes and rivers and forests. Sure, we have friendly locals and a peaceful, quiet way of life, offering respite from the frantic bustle of the cities, but that’s also true for most of the state….
Sebec Lake, Maine. Image taken by me in early October.
At the end of the day, camping or hunting destinations in the central and southern part of the state are much easier to get to…and are located in larger communities that have more to offer to tourists in terms of local festivals, dining, and shopping. Although northern Maine does have its share of quirky local festivals and events, the dining and shopping options up here are likely to underwhelm - remember that thanks to the labor shortage I discussed in Part I, we can barely keep restaurants open!
Before visiting NMDC, I stopped in at the Aroostook Centre Mall in Presque Isle. With a population of 8800, Presque Isle is the largest city in Aroostook County (although its population has declined over 15% since 1990). Visiting the mall, I was shocked at how empty it was - it was a ghost mall, like something you’d see in China. The key difference is that Maine’s ghost infrastructure is post-people, while China’s is pre-people.
I remember when I went to the mall as a kid that the food court would be so busy, you’d have to walk around for 10 minutes with your tray waiting for a seat to open up. Now, the whole mall has less than five stores open and the food court has just one lonely restaurant left (a Chinese place, ironically)
The Chinese restaurant owner’s name is Winnie and she’s from Hong Kong, via San Francisco. From behind the cash register, she told me she’s watched all her neighbors close, one by one, as the mall foot traffic dried up over the years. But, she still gets business from loyal customers who come to the mall just to pick up takeout from her restaurant, the only light in an otherwise dark food court.
I ask Winnie if she would consider opening a standalone restaurant outside the mall if it closed down. “No…I wouldn’t” she says. “I’m tired. My daughter doesn’t want to work here. She’s studying in Hong Kong. When this mall is done, I’m done.”
I wonder if the Chinese restaurants in the state have survived the labor shortage while so many other places have failed because they have the option to bring in extended family members from back home? It’s a plausible theory I think.
A nearby mall cleaning staff who looked to be in her mid-20s told me she blames the nearby Walmart for the decline of the mall.
“First we lost Kmart, then Sears, and now there’s only the JCPenney left. And I don’t know even know who shops at JCPenney…I can’t believe they’re still open….Everything else in here closed…I guess there’s no customers…It’s really a shame…We don’t even have a mall anymore…But I guess the stores in here were always expensive compared to Walmart. You know a new restaurant opened in here last year and closed after just two months? They left all their tables and chairs behind…really nice wood tables.”
Consolidating all the variety and retail stores in town into one Walmart might be convenient and even good for the locals’ pocketbooks, but it sure doesn’t have much of a draw for tourists looking for cute local shopping.
I asked Jon at NMDC what he would tell the town manager of a small town like my hometown of Fort Kent who is looking for a “solution” to attracting more tourists and reversing the town’s decline. He told me candidly that there’s no really good answer to a question like that. They don’t have the authority (or the funding) to mold an entire town into a tourist destination with all the attractions, lodging, and public relations it needs to be successful, the way China is trying to do with its countryside.
What NMDC can do is provide financial support to new tourism-oriented businesses and provide information consulting to help the town position itself. They can shunt tourists in the direction of Aroostook County with the tourism portal page they maintain at Visit Aroostook. But the town itself has to decide how aggressive they want to be with their development plan, has to cultivate its own entrepreneurs with big ideas, has to allocate funds to invest in the key infrastructure, has to market itself online.
So, whether the town has an aggressive, growth-centric model depends on the personalities of the key players who run the town. If the influential people in the community are more conservative, then the town’s entire approach to tourism, marketing, and development will be more conservative.
A high school friend of mine who is involved with running a local snowmobile club told me that the older generation of business leaders retiring (and making way for younger people with more social media and advertising savvy) has been important for their growth. She said tourist membership in their snowmobile club has been growing consistently for the last few years thanks to their online efforts, and now some members have reported trouble finding accommodations on their trips up here. Of course, investing in building tourist hotels, like other types of businesses, requires “if you build it, they will come” thinking.
That specific effort has been famously challenging in Fort Kent. In 2004, we played host to a leg of the 2003-2004 Biathlon World Cup, an exciting episode that brought nearly 20,000 international spectators into town to cheer their athletes on to medals and glory. It was a huge deal for the town, and a big opportunity for the development of the winter sports economy in northern Maine. A few years later, the organizers of the Biathlon World Cup wanted Fort Kent to build a hotel that could accommodate more spectators and athletes as a prerequisite for being able to host the event once again. The town’s planning committee hemmed and hawed over it for ages, and eventually decided they couldn’t justify the cost. Presque Isle built the hotel instead, and they got to host the World Cup. Now, world-class athletes train on our trails and enjoy our well-groomed snow, but we aren’t hosting any big events.
Chapter 5: Local Politics are Tricky Anywhere
In a small town, a single influential local personality or politician can exert control over the development of an entire community - often making…or breaking…development. This wisdom holds as true for Maine as it does in rural China.
A town not far from where I grew up is home to such an individual. Retired now, this local VIP spent many decades as a Maine state legislator, building himself into a power player with a reputation for doing everything in his power to take care of his constituents’ interests. He was even seen as a bit of a political kingmaker in our county. He was also known for being involved in some shady business dealings that raised more than a few eyebrows and having a fierce temper (especially when asked about the business dealings).
But. Everyone knows that that he was also generous with his time and resources when a local student needed a summer internship down in the capitol, or when a local business had a gnarly regulatory problem that needed fixing…and that he’s probably the reason that our local roads always had appropriations to be freshly re-paved in the spring. And now that he’s retired, it’s a lot more difficult to get things done up here.
Jon at NMDC told me Aroostook County used to be a powerful force in the Maine state legislature because the local legislators used to all vote together on local matters, regardless of political party. This meant we could always count on a unified front from our lawmakers…or at least we used to. Aroostook County lawmakers don’t vote as a bloc these days; now they vote along party lines. Maybe it’s just a reflection of partisanship at the national level. Or perhaps it’s because that guy who used to whip them into shape finally retired. These days, local lawmakers have a lot less leverage than they used to. Seems they’re too busy fighting culture wars down in Augusta to come together on the economic war that they’re all in danger of losing back home.
Our state senator is named Troy Jackson. He’s the current Maine Senate President….and also the father of a friend from high school. A few days before I left Maine, I bumped into him at a local crafts fair. I hadn’t seen him in 14 years, but I think he still recognized me. If he didn’t, he played it off well. Jackson’s a good guy, in my personal estimation.
Maine Senate President and local guy Troy Jackson
While making small talk, I took the opportunity to mention I’m writing something about Aroostook County and rural China, and that turned into a whole conversation. I told him about China’s “if you build it, they will come” approach to everything - especially infrastructure and development. This got Jackson animated immediately.
“We need that here! The first thing we need to do up here is just get more broadband coverage. What kind of business would be interested in putting their office up here with such poor internet?”
“I agree,” I tell him. “Forget about 5G or even 4G, we barely have 3G speeds up here.”
“If we can get a signal at all! There’s still so many dead zones. That’s one of the things we’re working on right now, getting two new towers installed” he says.
I tell him how the rural infrastructure development in China’s countryside is mostly top-down, driven by national investment money. I explain how China’s core philosophical foundation for this is basically: “our country has grown on the back of labor from the rural areas; now it’s time for the nation to repay the countryside.”
I can see his eyes light up with that concept, as I could have guessed they would. Before he entered politics, Jackson was a 5th-generation union logger, and I’m pretty sure he still spends a good amount of time working in the woods. It’s not like you make the big bucks as a state senator.
“That’s very interesting. I’ve never quite thought about it like that, but it’s a good way to describe it”. His tone sobers and he lowers his voice slightly. “But you know it would be so difficult to have that kind of government spending and government management in Maine…around here, people call that…socialism”.
We also discuss the labor shortage and he confirms that it’s a huge problem across the whole state. “People just don’t have the large families like they used to…the next generation is much smaller” he tells me. But Jackson has an idea for bolstering Maine’s faltering labor force: why not encourage more legal immigration to Maine? For several decades now, southern Maine, especially our second-largest city of Lewiston, has become a destination for recent immigrants from East Africa, particularly Somalia. Jackson thinks more of this could help with the entry-level labor shortage.
But, he acknowledges, it’s a sensitive issue.
“I don’t want to call it racism, because that’s not the right word for it, but there’s just a lot of…”
“Ignorance?” I supply, trying to be helpful.
“Yes, that’s right, ignorance. Any time we talk about immigration issues, I can see it in people’s eyes….But let me tell you…when I had my re-election campaign headquarters in Lewiston and we were working with some of those Somali immigrants…they just work so hard! I think… if they want to be here and they want to work…then what’s the problem?”
Up in Aroostook, I doubt most people have enough experience with immigrants to have any particular opinions about them, ignorant or otherwise. However, considering the general insularity and level of suspicion up here towards anyone “from away”, (with special emphasis on all people with MA or CT license plates), it definitely would need a deft approach. At the end of the day, though, if the alternative is watching every business in the community close because they can’t find enough workers, I think people can and will get over it.
It’s an election year for Jackson and the vote is just days away. His opponent has been coming after him pretty hard with attack ads, so he probably can’t afford to make a sensitive topic like immigration part of his platform. It’s a shame, because I think it’s a pretty good idea. After bumped into Jackson, I took a look at his campaign website. Despite the labor shortage on everyone’s mind, his site still lists “Jobs” as one of his core policy platforms. Considering everything I’ve learned in the last few weeks, I wonder whether it shouldn’t read “Labor” instead?
Last Part: Conclusions/What Does it All Mean?
Obviously, my title was a little clickbait-y. A direct comparison between Maine and China is always going to be strained. The population densities are especially hilarious to compare; my entire home county of Aroostook has about the same population as a typical Chinese township but probably takes up the space of several Chinese counties.
But it’s clear that both countries have come to a conclusion about their rural communities and the economies that drive them: they need saving. And the exact nature of the problems they face are not so dissimilar.
I’ve mentioned before in my writing a common theory of urbanization that basically goes: urbanization is the natural way of the world. It’s more efficient for more people to live in cities and it consumes resources inefficiently to provide food, healthcare, infrastructure, and services to rural residents. Rural life is an anachronism. Proponents of this theory might argue: whether you agree with it or not, think it’s desirable or not, it’s already happening, because it’s the most natural outcome of the way we’ve arranged our communities.
Efforts like what are going on in China and Maine represent a rejection of this theory. They assert instead that rural life and rural lifestyles are vital components of our world, worth funneling resources into saving. The countryside is not just for urbanites to visit, but also for rural dwellers to enjoy a high-quality lifestyle in.
While both places are making efforts, in general, I think massive social-terraforming projects are a more natural match for the Chinese development model. How many times did I use the phrase “if you build it, they will come” in these two essays? How else but with this phrase could you summarize China’s approach to the construction of its country, embodied in everything from high speed rail lines to Ordos City? When the country underwrites the investment risk, is it even risk at all? Not for the locals…not really. For the national lenders perhaps.
Maine clearly can’t follow that kind of model. Even if the money existed at the state or national level for projects like this…building a new tourist attraction, or upgrading its infrastructure, the political will needed carry out these projects would need to be sustained for far longer than a single election cycle in the US. These projects will take years to come to fruition and see results…and in the interim, the political opponents of whichever party happens to be in charge will be relentlessly attacking the incumbent for not delivering results quickly enough, not spending money effectively enough, not representing the will of the constituents accurately etc.
Plus, ANY proposed program inevitably will be found to conflict with some interest group’s benefits, who will be more than happy to launch a campaign to stop it. Even things that seem like they should be a slam dunk, like designating wilderness land as a National Monument, will end up upsetting hunters or sportsmen who have been using trails on the land for decades.
Where/if the successes happen in Maine, they will happen thanks to private sector champions with strong visions, high tolerance for risk, a creative approach to labor issues, and a knack for securing local alignment and consensus. Considering the small population, I find it statistically unlikely that every small community would end up finding such a champion…which means some communities will survive and some will just die off.
In the great American pioneering mythos, challenges are met and overcome with a slice of “survival of the fittest”, a portion of “fortune favors the bold”, and a heaping dose of “God helps those who help themselves”. These maxims serve to justify both the winners winning AND the losers losing, regardless of the degree to which luck or pre-existing conditions actually played a role. I believe this same philosophy will be applied to the American rural rejuvenation, if it is to happen. Some communities will survive and prosper, “because they earned it”. As for those that die out - it will also be exactly what they deserved, I guess.
(Not that every village will survive in China either, by the way. The ones that simply can’t compete on any measures, that appear to have no chance of attracting tourists or stimulating local job growth…they just get bulldozed, and their residents moved somewhere else. Instead of a nominally egalitarian natural selection process, some sociologists and development planners make those choices actively. The results are likely similar though.)
Can I say clearly which development approach I prefer philosophically? Nah. The American way seems to be a reasonable fit for the American countryside and the Chinese way seems to be a reasonable fit for the Chinese countryside, but that’s hardly insight; it’s just a slightly dressed-up tautology.
Would taking the Chinese approach in Maine yield a countryside full of vibrant, healthy, mini-towns full of people living their best lives, self-propelled economies shored up by the generous wealth spigot of top-down planning and funding? Or would it yield hollow zombie-towns kept alive via pumped oxygen, nothing more than a liability for the state taxpayers? Would applying the rural Maine model to rural China result in local entrepreneurs springing out of every hamlet, with rural wealth accumulation far surpassing the rate that would have been possible under the top-down “rising tide raises all boats” approach? Or would we have new fiefdoms, corruption, and an updated way to create local inequality?
I don’t have the answers to any of that of course; in the end I am still only a tour guide for this thought exercise, not an instructor. For my inability to do more, you must excuse me…
I do hope, however, I’ve done my part for promoting Northern Maine, such as I’ve tried. If you’ve ever thought about visiting Maine and your considerations for travel only stretched as far north as Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park…if you thought the world ended at Bangor…I heartily recommend you venture just a little further on your next trip. Your visit will be mightily appreciated. Here’s what you’re gonna do:
Take Interstate 95 all the to the Sherman exit and follow the signs for Patten. Blaze your trail up Route 11 (but don’t drive too fast…the staties will getcha, or you’ll hit a moose) and pull into Patten. Check out Baxter State Park and Mount Katahdin and the new Woods and Waters National Monument. Head north, then east, and take a hike up Mount Haystack in Mapleton. Catch the Maine Potato Blossom Festival in Fort Fairfield and the new cross-country ski trails in Presque Isle. Come see a dogsled race in Fort Kent and the Acadian festival in Madawaska. Keep heading north, north, until the telephone poles disappear, and the land blocks have no name. Until the Welcome to Our Town signs start reading “Bienvenue” and the air smells like crisp leaves and apples and musty dirt and and you can see at least a million million stars in the endless black nights. Until you don’t remember what full cell service looks like, and you start thinking about buying an orange hunting cap, and wondering if you’d look good in flannel…
Before you leave, make sure you find time to venture down to the local breakfast place, just say “yes” when the waitress asks if you’d like a nip of coffee brandy (probably Allen’s) in your morning cup of mud, and destroy a stack of homemade buckwheat ployes drenched in butter and Maine maple syrup. C’est bon ça, tabarnak!