Maine’s rural hinterland, despite its history and natural beauty, shows numerous signs of chronic economic and community distress. Compared to the state’s relatively prosperous southern and coastal counties, the six “rim counties” (Oxford, Franklin, Somerset, Piscataquis, Aroostook, and Washington) suffer from persistent low incomes, high poverty rates, high unemployment levels, youth out-migration, and rapidly aging populations.
We are not alone: rural Maine shares these adverse trends and conditions with the other northeastern states and, indeed, much of rural America. Absent any coherent national strategy for distressed rural regions, one might expect the State to fill the gap. Yet Maine has never pursued a coherent a rural development strategy of its own. MECEP’s response is an initiative we call Spreading Prosperity to All of Maine, focusing primarily on the rim counties. One challenge has been to identify and
frame strategies for economic sectors that show the greatest potential to lead rural regions toward sustainable prosperity.
Tourism has four critical attributes of such a lead sector:
• Critical Mass: Tourism is big. It directly generates over ten percent of rim county employment and about eight percent of income. Adding reasonable estimates of tourism’s indirect (multiplier) effects, it accounts for one in seven rim county jobs.
• Growth Potential: With a few exceptions, rural Maine’s natural attractions and gateway towns have substantial underutilized supply capacity. On the demand side, our nature, culture and heritage have the potential to attract significantly more visitors, especially high-spending experiential tourists. Although the conditions for sustainable tourism growth are promising, however, it will not happen automatically through “the magic of the market.”
• Export Revenues: Rural tourism is an export sector in the classic sense. Visitors “from away” bring in money that they spend on the region’s goods and services. Tourism, of course, is a special kind of export. Instead of producing a commodity, like paper, and shipping it to the world, we encourage “the world” to visit our back yard.
• Influence on Community vitality: Large numbers of visitors sharing our back yard affect host communities’ vitality and residents’ quality of life – for better or for worse. In distressed rural towns, beneficial community impacts include increased variety and quality of commercial services, livelier cultural life, larger school enrollments, and greater government revenues. There are also potential downside effects, such as downtown congestion, loss of affordable housing, restricted access to recreational facilities, and “culture clash.” The strategic challenge is to maximize tourism’s benefits while managing growth to minimize downside impacts.
by David Vail