Sunday, January 10, 2010

Jackman, or bust

Nearly three years ago now, just after I started in my position with the LWIB, I was part of a discussion about economic development, and someone used the term, "the two Maines." While this phrase has become popularized by some, and periodically, you'll read an article in a Maine-based publication referring to this sense that Maine is split in two--namely north/south; with the state's economically viable (southern sections south of Bangor) corridor, and the rural regions, anything north and east/west of I-95--it more often than not indicates to me an apparent lack of understanding about the geographic, demographic, and economic realities of the state. At the very least, it's an oversimplication of Maine, and shows a lack of creativity.

At that same meeting, a DECD representative was in attendance, a gentleman I have developed a fondness and respect for, partly for his self-deprecating sense of humor, but mainly because of his wisdom that comes from his length of service working in the trenches of econonomic development. He calls himself a "dinosaur" and he bears the scars of one who has managed to maintain a relevance that's allowed him to serve in the current administration, and also during the King administration. I'd affectionately call him a grizzled veteran.

When queried about "the two Maines," he indicated that if this was the case, then his job would be an easy one. Instead, in his estimation, Maine was in reality, 16, or 18 seperate entities, all with their own inherent unique characteristics, local cultures, and economic challenges. This has stayed with me ever since, and validates much of what I've come to know about my home state.

I thought about this idea again last Wednesday, when I made the long drive north of Skowhegan, to Jackman. I had been invited to speak before the Jackman Community Leadership Group.

The trip had been arranged by a colleague and community partner, Dana Hamilton, who serves with me as a member of the Somerset Workforce Development Team (SWDT), a standing group that meets monthly, primarily in Skowhegan. This group, focused on workforce/econonomic development for all of Somerset County, has shut out other communities in Somerset, by unintentionally becoming centered mainly on Skowhegan, and to a lesser extent, Pittsfield and Madison.

My colleague chided our group back in October by saying that "Somerset County is more than just Skowhegan." This resonated with me. She challenged our group to think about holding meetings elsewhere, particularly in some of the smaller communities to the north, like Bingham, and Jackman. It's so easy, regardless of where we live and work, to become parochial, fixated on only our tiny little corner.

Workforce development, and I think, economic development, at least in a state like Maine, is really a regional affair. It's difficult to mandate statewide policies that will work well in both economically robust Portland, and even Cumberland County, and in economically challenged counties like Somerset, Washington, and Oxford to name just three. Yet, more often than not, when policy is discussed, at least by this current administration, and now, by the ever-expanding field of candidates running for governor, one-size-fits-all pronouncements continue to be made.

The best part of my visit to Jackman last week is that is helped me have a much better understanding of the issues as they are on the ground. Rooting what I do in reality informs me in the work that I do, and helps me to be as effective as possible in my position. It also prevents me from becoming someone detached, yet thinks that he knows all the answers. These kind of people often offer "solutions" to people in rural regions that prefer partners and people willing to collaborate, not government "experts" riding in on their white horses with yet another solution to their problems.

That seems to me to be what school consolidation has turned out to be for many rural school districts. What began in theory as a way to shave administrative costs, has visited major challenges on rural districts, like MSAD #12, in Jackman.

As I mentioned during my talk in Jackman, "if someone wanted to create a policy designed to destroy what vitality and hope remains in Maine's rural outposts, they couldn't have come up with anything better than school consolidation." While this might not be received happily by the current administration in power, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone that understands life in Maine's small communities to disagree with that statement.

The Jackman Community Leadership Team holds their monthly meetings at The Fours Seasons Restaurant. Prior to the meeting, Dana and I had a wonderful lunch and conversation with Heather Perry, superintendent of schools in Jackman and Greenville, Denise Plante, assistant superintendent in Jackman and principal at Forest Hills School, and Steve Banahan, a manager at one of the region's major employers, Moose River Lumber Company. The enthusiasm that these community leaders expressed about the town and region at large, as well as some of the exciting things going on with students at the school, and the innovative qualities of the Moose River mill was a much different message than some would have anticipated.

In reality, I have found the spirits and community health of rural Mainers, and by extension, economic possibilities in rural America, to be much more hopeful than are often portrayed major media types that rarely, if ever take the time to understand the culture of these areas. I tackled this subject some time ago in relation to a national story done by NPR on Skowhegan.

Because of my visit to Jackman, and given the technology that exists to conference in members of the Community Leadership Team, we now have a goal to start forging stronger ties between our work with the SWDT and the initiatives that are already underway in Jackman.

To do this will require a willingness to periodically take our meetings outside of Skowhegan, and possibly meet at a minimum of two to three times each year in Jackman, or other communities in the Moose River region. More to come on this.

To learn more about issues connected to rural school districts, like the one in Jackman, I'd suggest the website of The Rural School and Communty Trust. Their report, Why Rural Matters in 2009 is worth reviewing for anyone that cares about keeping rural schools healthy and vibrant, and by extension, the communities where those schools are the central focus of local life.

1 comment:

Mary LaFontaine said...

I always like reading your are a good writer (obviously). Your blogs are thought provoking and challenge our thinking. While I don't necessarily agree with your thoughts on school consolidation, I do understand that we can not always have state wide policy because of the regional differences. thanks.