Saturday, October 20, 2007

Different things for different people

[This is a highly subjective evaluation of Friday’s 2007 GrowSmart Maine Summit. Expecting one thing and finding out that many of the participants were looking for something much different for Maine’s future than I was. This post is less about a structured exercise in writing and more about trying to get my thoughts out while they are still relatively fresh and not overly-analyzed-JB]

It should be obvious to most, particularly those of us who’ve lived in Maine most of our lives that the state is changing. For some of us, those changes are not welcome and for the more cynical (a category to which I proudly claim membership), Brookings Report, or not, the state will continue to lose its former charm, as suburbanization continues to chew up the landscape. In fact, since 1980, an area of Maine the size of Rhode Island has converted from open spaces to residential usage.

While Maine’s population had remained static and stagnant, with growth coming to a virtual standstill in the 1990s that trend has now been reversed; Maine is now experiencing unprecedented growth. During the past decade, or so, the state’s annualized growth rate has doubled. Maine, which once ranked 46th in growth as late at 2000, has jumped to 26th nationally, experiencing the fastest growth in the U.S.

Transplants from away are arriving in Maine in record numbers, changing the character and the culture of the state. The midcoast region of Maine now numbers more residents from away, than natives.

When GrowSmart Maine commissioned the Brookings Institution to produce Charting Maine’s Future: An Action Plan for Promoting Sustainable Prosperity and Quality Place, it provided Mainers with an important document and potential roadmap, to aid residents in planning and plotting its future. While the document is important and even helpful, I find it interesting how the report's various recommendations have been seized upon by a variety of players to push forward agendas that they already had.

I was in attendance at Friday’s GrowSmart Maine Summit, which was held at the Augusta Civic Center. I estimated that there were around 1,000 people in attendance (the Press Herald pegged it at 700, Lewiston Sun Journal business writer, Carol Coultas, noted the attendance at 850). There was a healthy representation from Maine state government (Maine Planning Office, DEP, DECD), the non-profit sector, as well as real estate developers, engineers, consultants, municipal administrators and members of the state’s legislative delegation. Noticeably absent were members of the private sector and ordinary citizens. I imagine the latter were engaged in working and couldn’t afford to burn a vacation day, or lose productivity.

I had a chance to do some networking upon arriving, as well as spending some time in discussion with my executive director, who was also in attendance. We both felt that there was enough in the day’s agenda that had some connection with workforce development, to justify spending the day in various seminars.

The opening keynote by Harvard Professor Ronald Heifetz, on leadership, was brilliant. Heifetz mixed metaphors, with his subject matter ranging from soups and sexuality, to biology, with abundant biblical references thrown in for good measure.

Heifetz warned about confusing leadership with authority, as well as the importance of being able to recognize the differences between technical, versus adaptive change. Heifetz's contention is that many of the issues facing Maine and the country at large--sprawl, global warming, corporatization--are adaptive changes and don't lend themselves well to the same process that technical change is brought about by. All require changes in the way we live and less about a top-down governmental solution.

Part of the charge given to conference participants by Heifetz and echoed by GrowSmart's director, Alan Caron, was to spend some time meeting and talking to others that might not hold your own viewpoints. I would have enjoyed doing more of that but the size of the gathering and the tight framework of each seminar had participants being talked at, rather than having the opportunity to create dialogue.

I had signed up for a seminar titled, “Can Government Sreamline and Redesign Itself for the 21st Century?” While the tile was intriguing, the four panelists were a major disappointment. Beginning with the lack of technology limiting projection of visuals via PowerPoint, instead, having sheets of statistics being passed around the room, smacked of a lack of professionalism, or at least planning and was off-putting to me. As someone who presents regularly, I would think that one of these four people on the panel would have been better prepared with a laptop and a projector.

David Flanagan, the former president of Central Maine Power, former independent candidate for governor and now heading up the Maine Public Spending Research Group, was one of four boring panelists. It’s never a good sign when you begin with a policy wonk (Chuck Lawton/Planning Decisions), segue to a droning technocrat (Flanagan), have a pro-business, anti-tax crusader (Tony Payne/Alliance for Maine’s Future) in the three spot and end with an accountant (Beth Ashcroft/OPEGA).

Actually, Payne was a good presenter and made some decent points, but in my opinion, Flanagan and Payne represent an element that wants to gut government, rather than work off the GrowSmart/Brookings’ recommendations of reductions in the area of $60 to $100 million. Flanagan is promoting cuts in excess of $800 million, which in my opinion is unrealistic and even irresponsible.

After this torturous 90 minutes, it was back to the main auditorium for lunch and a few words from the governor. Governor Baldacci was in a trash talking mood, at times intimating that his move to consolidate schools, jails and even local PTA’s, stems from some deep well of philosophical resolve, rather than from the need to be seen as something other than your typical tax-and-spend Democrat and political hack.

If you happened to be hearing the governor for the first time, you would have thought he was the architect for smart growth and sustainable development. Since I’ve never heard the governor take a stand against any group looking to despoil the state’s pristine character (unless it was an Indian-run casino), his words came off sounding somewhat disingenuous to me.

After the morning’s disappointing seminar, I was hoping my afternoon would redeem my day and overcome being non-plussed up to this point.

I was off to “The Business Case for Smart Growth.” I was hoping that this would be about why it makes economic sense to do things that benefit people, places and the natural environment; a familiar theme of mine; putting people before profits.

It was apparent from the first 10 minutes, with Lee Sobel, from the US EPA’s Office of Development, Community & Environment that this was going to be a “paint by the numbers” recitation of government double-speak and gobbledygook. It was out the door and down the hall for me.

I ducked into a seminar on Main Street Renewal. Thinking this would be about how to revitalize Main Street and give merchants, citizens and others some ammo on how to stand up to corporate behemoths like Wal-Mart, Target and other big-box town-wreckers, a panelist was droning on about simplistic ideas such as hosting local events for your downtown area spurred me once again taking to the exit.

Scooting out of here, I retired to the auditorium to regroup, have a cup of coffee and jot down some notes. Realizing that time was ticking away on my day and that the conference was entirely different than my expectations, I now had only a brief window of opportunity to salvage the day.

[Grassroots organizers Rachel and Lucas, from NRCM]

Wandering through the exhibit area, I stopped at the Natural Resource Council of Maine’s table. They had a well-organized display about the Plum Creek Development Plan and NRCM’s reasons for opposing the current footprint of the project.

I met Rachel and Lucas, two young activists who came to Maine in August to work on NRCM’s campaign to help preserve the pristine character of the Moosehead Region. They are living in Augusta and Rachel had stumbled across my blog. She complimented me on my recent post about Augusta’s ugliness and the train wreck development that characterizes our state’s capital.

Despite my outward cynicism, I remain an idealist at heart and that’s probably why it was so refreshing to talk to two 20-somethings that still believe that grassroots campaigns are our only hope we have in resisting the onslaught of corporate development and profit-making.

[Author/researcher Stacy Mitchelll speaks about the Informed Growth Act]

Finally, it was time for the conference’s final afternoon sessions. For me, it was off to hear a discussion about the state’s Informed Growth Act.

This was well worth my time and the panelists, which included author/researcher Stacy Mitchell, Eleanor Kinney, attorney Peggy McGhee and Topsham select board member Michelle Jones, did an excellent job presenting and explaining this new law, designed to make it more difficult for large scale retail projects to set up shop in communities that oppose this kind of development.

The new law, passed in September, 2007, is the first statewide initiative like it in the U.S. It will require any municipality to make a decision on any proposed retail development of 75,000 square feet, or larger, to determine undue adverse impact. The law stipulates that the developer will bear the cost of the $40,000 fee to the State Planning Office for an economic impact study. This study will look at various possible negative effects, including existing retail operations, supply and demand for retail space, net job creation and loss, wages and benefits and the public cost of roads, police, fire, rescue and sewer, among other economic effects.

To get a sense of the scope of this type of project, there is no Shaw’s or Hannaford store in Maine larger than 44,000 square feet. A football field is 57,000 square feet.

I got to meet Mitchell and speak briefly to her. I told her that I appreciated her efforts with Big Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America’s Independent Businesses, to create a compendium of facts and information for activists and others to counter arguments that are often posited in support of big-box development. Mitchell’s book has become “the bible” for those who know intuitively that big-box development is bad news for communities and the citizens that live there. Mitchell’s book gives us the toolkit to speak articulately and authoritatively about the costs and negative fallout that accompanies the arrival of big-box retailers.

[L-R: IGA Panelists Stacy Mitchell, Peggy McGhee, Eleanor Kinney, Michelle Jones]

This seminar was in line with what I expected the entire conference to be about. More in line with what I thought smart growth was/is, more in line with the values of Wendell Berry and people that are about place and less about trying find a way to salve the consciences of developers and real estate agents who want to pay lip service to maintaining the state’s heritage and culture, while aiding and abetting its destruction.


Margaret Evans Porter said...

Even if some of the speakers were boring, what a fascinating and timely public policy summit! So interesting to learn what's happening on the ME side of the border. Your summary is frank and extremely thought-provoking. Thanks!

Jim said...

I'm glad you enjoyed my post, Margaret.

Yes, I do see your point about the importance of public gatherings on policy, I just wish it had been a bit more representative of the state at large.

Mr. Caron's organization, GrowSmart, does deserve credit for pulling this together and Dr. Heifetz' address made attending worthwhile.