Driving home from my final appointment yesterday, I happened to have NPR on the radio, listening to the evening’s "All Things Considered" Segment. Much to my surprise, reporter Adam Davidson was doing a story on Maine—not Portland, or some “touristy” area of the state, either—the feature was on Skowhegan and how the former mill town was struggling to stay afloat. Immediately, my ears perked up and I even called my wife to listen to the feature, on her way home.
Since last August, when I began my current workforce training gig, I’ve spent more than my fair share of work time, in this community. While I recognize the challenges faced by a town that had hitched its wagon to Maine’s papermaking industry, as well as old-style manufacturing, I still felt a sense of hope, at least from the people I've met and been working with. Maybe its because I had the opportunity to spend some time with some of the members of the community that hadn’t thrown in the towel yet. People very different than Mary Jane Clifford, the woman that Davidson interviewed, who heads up the town’s general assistance office. Maybe it’s the nature of Clifford’s job and hence, all she sees are the folks that made her paint the future in such negative terms. She came across as the typical small-town rube that reporters from the big city try to find, to set up and “plant” the kind of quotes they are looking for—like Clifford talking about some of the young people that come to her—the one’s that she sees as having no future; the ones she gave such a ringing endorsement with the following quote:
“I'm dealing with a lot of young people who really seem unemployable," Clifford says. "They've dropped out of school. Their families have thrown them out. They have no plan. Many of them are heavily tattooed, heavily pierced.”
One of these “heavily tattooed, heavily pierced” folks recently completed the first pilot of a new training initiative that I’ve been part of. In fact, I spent quite a bit of time doing some of the ground work for and helping members of the community put together an employer advisory group that will oversee the program. In my opinion, our first time through was a success and we saw some people that Clifford would deem “hopeless” complete the training and a number of them have been employed after graduating from our three week soft skills training initiative. By the way; our young graduate, who removed her piercings, covered up her tattoos and cut the red coloring out of her hair, recently got hired by a local employer to perform a customer-service role. Unfortunately, Davidson didn’t talk to any of the local employers, or other community-based people that were responsible for the success of this program, called WorkReady.
Interestingly, Davidson interviewed the interim chamber director, who was bemoaning cuts in town that are putting a crimp on tourist-friendly amenities that Skowhegan had. As if all that matters for the future of the town are fireworks, balloon festivals and public restrooms. One interview, with a member of the business community, with something positive to say would have helped to lend a bit of balance to the story. In my opinion, a chamber director ought to be looking to create some positive energy from his membership. Our local workforce development committee has tried to solicit support for our training program from the chamber and for whatever reason, the chamber has chosen to not attend any meetings, or the subsequent graduation of WorkReady, as we focused on upgrading the skills of the local workforce. I guess he doesn’t see the correlation that exists between workforce skills and economic development, which is too bad, given his function of marshaling the area's business community.
One person that does understand the connection and who was noticeably absent from the parade of negative interview subjects and hand-ringers in Davidson’s piece, was Jim Batey, who heads up Somerset Economic Development Corporation.
Batey is someone who I’ve come to respect a great deal in the community. He was a major catalyst for WorkReady and commands respect among the business community, which by the way, also impressed me and appears committed to the future of Skowhegan.
It was Batey who held a series of public forums, one of which I drove up to attend, where he solicited input from members of the community, as he was formulating a five-year plan of economic development. The forum I attended was engaging, many positive ideas were put forth and unlike Davidson, I came away from this meeting with a sense that Skowhegan and Somerset County was on the verge of something positive. Silly me, with my love of rural America and small town economies. Better to be a cynical big city journalist and portray rural Maine as a bunch of benighted hicks in a post-manufacturing backwater, than a place where hope still flickers.
I suppose that to some, like realtor Amy McLellan and Main Street Skowhegan’s Audrey Lovering, the future of the town rests with rich folks from away coming in and buying up the town and tossing a few scraps to the locals. Apparently that’s what Davidson and other visitors to Maine must think when they come here for their requisite lobster dinners and drives along the state’s idyllic coastline, with occasional forays inland, to places like Skowhegan. To some extent, why should we expect anything else? We've placed many of our eggs in the basket of tourism for far too long. It is Maine's tourism-based economic model that fuels the caricature of Maine that the Adam Davidsons of the world enjoy perpetuating.
Somerset County and Skowhegan have challenges. Anyone with any sense would be foolish not to acknowledge that. At the same time, there are people with a positive vision still active in the community, who see the possibilities of economic growth, are working towards raising the requisite skills employers need and will be the ones who ultimately determine the future of the town.
Interestingly, neighboring Franklin County, a county with some of the same challenges as Somerset County and Skowhegan, exudes confidence for the future. Rather than wringing their hands, they are moving forward, increasing educational opportunities, attracting businesses to the county and facing the future with optimism, rather than the pessimism of people like Clifford and others.
Sometimes it all comes down to perspective, I guess. Sadly, in Skowhegan, the perspective of many appears to be negative and the NPR feature won't do much to change that view.