How Maine’s rural votes can power the urban plyscraper economy

“The more you pay in taxes, the more say you should have in government!”

Oddly enough, that is the subtext of recent opinion pieces authored by those on the left in The Washington Post and The New York Times. Why? Because, in their view, urban America is responsible for wealth, economic prosperity, and the public treasury while being underrepresented through the Electoral College. Meanwhile, rural America is simply a bunch of moochers with a metaphorical bullhorn from their “excessive” representation.

They should be careful with that idea.

Taken to its logical conclusion, at the individual level, the bigger your tax bill, the louder your voice in government. Is that really where we want to go? Should people in higher tax brackets receive more ballots to cast? Of course not.

But contrast those paeans to urbanity with the Bangor Daily News’ reporting on the past and future of rural Maine. The BDN has done an excellent job of telling our state’s story.

The common theme? No two ways about it; we are a rural state. And despite the slings and arrows of writers in New York and Washington, D.C., it comes with a proud history. Look at the welcoming nature of our state when it came to olive-skinned immigrants. The Lebanese took root around Waterville and Fort Fairfield. Their descendants include George Mitchell and John Baldacci. Italians crossed the Atlantic to build Millinocket and lay the railroad tracks crisscrossing the land, all while pursuing the American dream.

Those immigrants — and others — settled in Maine partly because of the opportunity provided by our natural resources, most notably our forests. Unlike elsewhere in the nation, these immigrant groups didn’t create cloistered ethnic enclaves in the cities, separate from the communities already here. Instead, they became part of the fabric of rural areas. They assimilated and became Americans; we’re better for it.

As the rural parts of our state look to the future, our past can inform it. In order to preserve and maintain those towns and communities, we need in-migration. It could be from new Americans, or it could come from families seeking a different way of life. But establishing a homestead requires economic opportunity. So, for Maine’s rural areas, where will it come from?

Paul Gray fills out his ballot in Oxbow Plantation in Aroostook County on Election Day. Micky Bedell | BDN

Paul Gray fills out his ballot in Oxbow Plantation in Aroostook County on Election Day. Micky Bedell | BDN

The fact is we remain the most heavily forested state in the union. Paper mills once drove economic growth outside the cities; the woods might again.

That is the theory of those supportive of the national monument created from Roxanne Quimby’s former land. If the new president doesn’t lead an effort to disestablish it, let’s hope the proponents are right. There are many reasons to question the economic analyses they commissioned, including the lack of a control for the variable called Baxter State Park. Yet regardless of the monument debate, tourism can play a role in Maine’s rural areas. The Mount Kineo House on Moosehead Lake was renowned for a reason; plans like Plum Creek’s in that same region could form the basis for the next tourism economy.

But there are other opportunities. We have significant stands of Norway spruce, recently certified for use in construction for the first time ever in the United States. Engineered wood products are becoming more and more commonplace in construction, enabling carbon-sequestering, economical green building. While Europe is at the forefront, the regulatory environment of the United States is beginning to allow “plyscrapers” — high-rise structures made from wood products — in its building codes.

The obstacles to these new industries are significant but not insurmountable. Gov. Paul LePage’s well-worn line about capital “going where it is welcome and staying where it is appreciated” rings true. If we want to see new investment providing for Maine’s next forest economy, we need a tax and regulatory environment that doesn’t penalize or prevent its establishment.

And for the writers who take umbrage with the advantages the Electoral College provides to rural states? I hope someday in the near future they sit in plyscrapers made of Maine wood, eating Maine lobster, spilling their words onto paper made from Maine pulp. I’ll trade real Maine products for their opinion any day of the week.

Michael Cianchette

About Michael Cianchette

Michael Cianchette was the chief counsel to Gov. Paul LePage from 2012-2013 and deputy counsel from 2011-2012. A Navy reservist, he was deployed to Afghanistan from 2013-2014 as a trainer and adviser to the Afghan National Police. He is an alumnus of the Leadership Maine program and holds a BA in economics and political science from Boston College along with a JD and an MBA from Suffolk University. He works as in-house counsel and financial manager for a number of affiliated companies in southern Maine.