What could Maine Look Like?
Maine has been populated and its resources harvested by people from away for hundreds of years. Today, development frequently comes from national corporations hoping for growth opportunities. Growth is good; demand is being satisfied by an increased availability of goods and services. Needless to say, goods and services provided by nationally established brands bring a visual and economic sameness that can alter the distinctiveness of the state. Maine towns that developed decades or hundreds of years ago have history, and that persisting history protects against contemporary developmental homogeneity. In worse shape are smaller municipalities that are only now experiencing significant growth. They lack a cultural inertia that could protect them from an onslaught of big boxes, national brands, and diffuse development. They also lack two things that national corporations have in spades: expertise and access to capital.
Urban sameness comes about because national companies know the formula for development. Their success comes from their ability to provide a product or service that is better priced or more readily available than alternatives. As development partners, they are known quantities. If a town seeks a big box retailer, Walmart can fit the bill. If a town seeks a fast food restaurant, McDonalds can fit that bill. Enlisting national chains as partners in economic development can be easier than enlisting locals.
The multitude of national corporations have expertise and resources in greater abundance than local economic players. They develop properties all the time, and they know how to do it again. Think about McDonalds. The buildings all look the same because McDonalds builds the same building over and over again. The supply chain already exists. The menu and the pricing exists. And, they have effective marketing and market analysis to keep them current and present in the mind of their customers.
Second, they have access to capital. When a McDonalds comes to town, it does not go to the local community bank for a loan (McDonalds buys and develops land on its own, then leases these stores to franchisees). The corporation does not need to come up with a business plan and pitch it to a lender.
For those interested in protecting Maine’s quality of life, certainly helping Maine achieve greater in-house capacity for development is an area worth studying. The ironic truth is that in order to protect Maine’s culture and quality of life, Maine needs to develop the in-house capacity to bring about change. It seems obvious to say this, but development expertise and access to capital are two of the ingredients that need attention.