We asked for your thoughts on what specific steps should happen to grow Maine’s economy, and you responded. In November, a total of 2,066 people took a Maine Focus survey to give their feedback on which economic development ideas deserve priority.

We put forward 20 economic initiatives that have been proposed in one form or another over the past several decades and asked the public to rank them. The results are in. Here are the top 10:

1. Reduce energy costs
2. Expand broadband
3. Improve K-12 education
4. Improve quality of Maine’s workforce
5. Focus on entrepreneurs and innovators
6. Protect Maine’s quality of place
7. Cultivate connections for local food
8. Reform higher education
9. Improve health, reduce health care costs
10. Improve Maine government efficiency

(The complete ranking, total scoring and accompanying descriptions are below.)


You said you wanted broad, structural improvements and tended to reject more partisan and one-time initiatives. In a somewhat surprising twist, you prioritized support for entrepreneurs and innovators but did not select a related proposal to expand research and development as a top need. You also did not prioritize growing Maine’s population, which is regularly cited as a critical factor in boosting Maine’s economy.

You did send in more than 600 comments, including these:

— “Great, lasting success comes in increments, not one time ‘monuments.’”

— “Thank you for running this survey. Education and investing in businesses would tangibly grow Maine’s economy, as would building the infrastructure to allow tomorrow’s businesses to be built here (e.g., broadband).”

— “There are many retired (or semi-retired) folks like me who are willing to volunteer to help meet these goals. Recruit them! Use them!”

— “Are we asking government to solve our problems, or should we ask them to get out of the way?”

— “We must stop thinking regionally and think of the state as a whole if we want to prosper. We’ve lost so much talented population from underserved areas to other states because we were too cheap to make the necessary investments so they could earn a living. Whenever costing out a project or proposal, our analysis needs to include the cost of doing nothing.”

— “Education! Protect Maine’s beauty! Grow small business! Concentrate on research, not manufacturing!”

Once the results were in, we sought to narrow them down even more, to focus the conversation and see what the biggest priorities should be. We sent the top 10 initiatives to people in the fields of economic development, community planning, energy, every level of education, business, entrepreneurship, transportation, banking, town government, innovation, technology, research and health. And we asked them to anonymously rank each one on a scale of 1 to 10, just as the public had done.

Here are the top five proposals, as ranked by 46 experts over the last month:

1. Improve quality of Maine workforce
2. Focus on entrepreneurs and innovators
3. Improve K-12 education
4. Reform higher education
5. Protect Maine’s quality of place

They identified a clear need for a pipeline of human capital, coupled with creating an environment in which people want to live and work. Their complete rankings are below, and you can see how close some of them were. The difference between the fifth-ranked initiative (protecting Maine’s quality of place) and sixth- and seventh-ranked initiatives (expanding broadband and reducing energy costs) was one point.

(While broadband and energy didn’t make the top five, they will undoubtedly still be discussed as we move forward with the project.)

As the public did, the experts also offered their thoughts:

— “A vision that spans administrations and changes of party would be an 11.”

— “Economic growth comes from the bottom up, not from the top down.”

— “Reurbanization will be key in moving forward.”

— “Training Maine’s workforce for high quality jobs is a great idea, but how many of those jobs exist in Maine? The jobs have to be created hand-in-hand with workforce training. If not, you will simply be training people to leave the state.”

— “You have the right components of Maine’s economic strategy in these 10. The question is how much to allocate to each, and how much money does it take in each category to have a positive impact.”

— “Many of the top 10 are long-term structural reforms. Lowering energy costs can be done in a matter of a few years and will have a dramatic impact on Maine’s economy and on the lives of lower- and middle-income citizens. Moving off oil (67 percent of our households still heat with oil) will make a $1,000-$1,500/year difference per family. To do this, Maine must immediately support building new natural gas pipelines from the Marcellus Shale.”

— “Maine is undergoing a long-term structural transition, the outcome of which will be driven by the choices and investments we will make over the coming 20 years. Be bold, be ourselves!”

From here, Maine Focus will dig into each of the top five initiatives and look at what has worked in the past and what has not — and why. We’ll look at current efforts underway and what they need to succeed. In addition to the experts, we’ll also ask you to weigh in with ideas for solutions. Stay tuned.

If you want to contribute ideas now for how best Maine should tackle the top five initiatives, or if you have ideas for reports we should read or who we should talk to as we push on with the project, please click here.

The goal is to start a statewide conversation about how, exactly, to grow Maine, balancing what people want with what the research shows.

So far, more than 800 people across the state have signed up to get an email update when we publish more about growing Maine’s economy. If you haven’t signed up yet, please enter your email address here and click “subscribe.”

Thank you for being part of this important conversation.

The public’s choices

1. Reduce energy costs: 16,141 points
High electricity and heating prices increase the cost of living and doing business in Maine. The state needs to reduce fossil fuel consumption and improve energy efficiency, boost initiatives to help low-income and elderly homeowners, expand the build-out of natural gas, and diversify energy sources — such as with hydro, wind, solar, biomass, tidal and geothermal — to reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

2. Expand broadband: 15,840 points
To remain competitive and attract people and businesses, Maine must improve the speed and reach of high-speed Internet, as well as digital literacy. The state has a 1,100-mile fiber-optic cable known as the “Three Ring Binder,” which provides a backbone for high-speed Internet. But most of Maine isn’t connected to it. The state needs to develop and stick to a strategy for delivering the service to the home, whether through increased standards for Internet service providers or incentives for public-private partnerships.

3. Improve K-12 education: 15,403 points
State government should fund 55 percent of K-12 public education as Maine voters requested in a referendum 10 years ago. It should incentivize districts to reduce administrative costs to bring the state more in line with national averages, stick to a comprehensive strategy to increase educational attainment, reward high-performing teachers and principals, and expand access to distance learning and options for high school students to take college classes.

4. Improve quality of Maine’s workforce: 15,398 points
The state needs to ensure it’s preparing Maine residents for the jobs of the future. It should offer incentives for people to go back to school to train for high-skill and high-wage occupations in promising industries, increase access to apprenticeships and internships, and expand high-demand programs at community colleges and universities.

5. Focus on entrepreneurs and innovators: 15,272 points
Since most economic growth is generated by new products and ideas, Maine should help entrepreneurs succeed and align various efforts with an over-arching vision. In a nonpolitical format, the state should measure economic development investments — tax breaks and spending — to see what is and isn’t working. Then Maine should build on what’s creating jobs. It should examine how to coordinate entrepreneurship education, reinvent how government approaches innovation, connect entrepreneurs, expand their access to capital, and use Maine’s entrepreneurial economy to enhance the state’s brand as a great place to start a business and a family.

6. Protect Maine’s quality of place: 15,248 points
Maine’s rural beauty, historic downtowns and cultural festivals are a draw for tourists and future residents alike. Maine should have a robust, permanent fund to help preserve land, forests, working waterfronts and farms, and support the development of municipalities’ riverfront parks, sidewalks, creative industry workers and public construction projects. The new fund would help increase access to areas to fish, hunt and boat, and ensure a robust infrastructure for creative industry workers. It would also help promote cultural and outdoor tourism opportunities.

7. Cultivate connections for local food: 15,057 points
Agriculture is a driver of Maine’s economy, with more younger farmers taking on the tradition. By connecting farms and expanding ways to sell their food locally — essentially creating food hubs — the state can cultivate more economic opportunities for farmers and healthier food for Maine residents. It should do more to leverage the brand of Maine-grown products. This state should be the breadbasket of the Northeast.

8. Reform higher education: 14,829 points
The university and community college systems are major drivers of the state’s economy, as they help create the workers and technologies of the future. In addition to adhering to a consistent vision, they need to ensure they are aligned with future economic needs, increase coordination to reduce redundancy, enroll and retain more students in a more efficient way, and be rewarded with stable and consistent levels of public funding.

9. Improve health, reduce health care costs: 14,581 points
Like energy costs, high health care costs deter business investment. Maine must fund improvements to the health care system and invest in preventive care to stop expenses from ballooning. Affordable insurance should be available for individuals and businesses. Accepting federal funds to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act can be part of a strategy to ensure people are healthy enough to work and prevent low-income people from breaking the bank to receive care. A Medicaid expansion would boost the number of health care jobs. Costs for the care of low-income, uninsured residents are currently shifted to patients with private insurance or Medicare.

10. Improve Maine government efficiency: 14,347 points
Maine state government can reduce duplication and operate much more efficiently. It’s often difficult for a government to trim itself, however, so an outside commission or agency should examine operations closely and then propose specific — and likely major — reforms.

11. Expand research and development: 14,245 points
In order to grow job opportunities, the state should substantially increase the amount it spends on research, development and innovation. By awarding more funds through a competitive process, and requiring a private match and measures of accountability, Maine may accelerate the creation of new products and technology that can then be sold on a broad scale. It also can fund collaborative projects targeted for high-potential sectors.

12. Pursue comprehensive tax reform: 14,243 points
Maine relies heavily on property taxes, so a tax reform plan would seek to alleviate the burden on low-income residents and towns with large amounts of tax-exempt property. It would reduce the top income-tax rate and export tax burdens to Maine’s visitors and non-resident second-home owners.

13. Boost international trade: 14,161 points
To sell more products, Maine businesses must find and capitalize on new markets, including overseas. The Maine International Trade Center can do more with increased capacity. Cargo-handling abilities in Portland, Searsport and Eastport also should be improved.

14. Grow the number of Maine workers: 14,013 points
To turn around the trend of a declining workforce, Maine will have to boost participation in the workforce and draw in people from out of state. Maine should develop public and private incentives to attract young families, create a comprehensive plan to market the state’s brand as family-friendly, grow the enrollment of foreign students, and help disadvantaged youth, older adults, veterans and people with disabilities get job experience and education.

15. Invest in early childhood education: 13,203 points
The return on investment in early childhood education happens if the programs are robust and consider the whole child. Each school district in Maine should offer access to a preschool program for infants and toddlers, not just 4-year-olds, and contract with already-existing providers of proven quality. The state should strengthen the standards by which child care centers must operate and provide more funding to expand their reach, in addition to expanding training options for the early childhood care workforce.

16. Increase local government collaboration: 13,186 points
It doesn’t make sense for towns to all provide separate but similar services. The state can help eliminate duplicate services by incentivizing towns and school districts to collaborate and find cost savings, therefore reducing property taxes.

17. Incentivize big business: 10,808 points
Any company that invests at least $50 million and creates 1,500 jobs at the former Brunswick Naval Air Station or the former Loring Air Force Base in Limestone should receive breaks on corporate income taxes, exemptions from the sales tax, lower electricity rates, and access to bond funding and other state assistance. The companies also may allow employees to opt out of joining a union or paying union fees.

18. Offer paid maternity leave: 10,497 points
To compete for families — and help business profitability, productivity and performance — Maine should require employers to offer paid maternity leave. There are potential mechanisms to pay for it, such as through a small employee-payroll tax or a state- or federally funded tax credit for employers.

19. Form a national park: 10,099 points
A 75,000-acre national park created east of Baxter State Park, with another 75,000 acres for a multi-use national recreational area, is estimated to create 200 jobs directly and an additional 250 jobs indirectly. It would draw people from around the world into the state and north to the Millinocket region.

20. Build the east-west highway: 8,905 points
The state should capitalize on its location. A privately funded highway running across the state, from Calais to Coburn Gore, would allow businesses to transport their goods into and out of Maine faster and connect them to the Midwest and overseas.

The experts’ choices

1. Improve quality of Maine workforce: 367 points

2. Focus on entrepreneurs and innovators: 337 points

3. Improve K-12 education: 331 points

4. Reform higher education: 322 points

5. Protect Maine’s quality of place: 321

6-7. Expand broadband: 320 points

6-7. Reduce energy costs: 320 points

8. Improve health, reduce health care costs: 287 points

9. Cultivate connections for local food: 258 points

10. Improve Maine government efficiency: 232 points

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Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is the editor of Maine Focus, a team that conducts journalism investigations and projects at the Bangor Daily News. She also writes for the newspaper, often centering her work on domestic and...