Maine is the most rural state in the country, but it doesn’t have an organization devoted solely to helping rural communities. There are various groups focused on particular aspects of rural development but not one to tie all the efforts together, even as rural parts of the state continue to struggle with population and job losses.

Maine could look to a neighbor and nearly equally rural state, Vermont, to see what a centralized body dedicated to tackling uniquely rural challenges has done for the state’s communities. Since 1992, the Vermont Council on Rural Development has helped communities identify their goals and create plans to achieve them, and connected them with potential funding sources and expert advice.

“We don’t come in with our own agenda. It’s about helping communities become collective teams for action,” said Paul Costello, who has served as the executive director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development since 2000. He will give the keynote address at a summit called Rural Maine’s Next Economy on Friday, Feb. 10, at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor.

The Vermont council starts the community-building process with public forums where residents and local leaders can share their general ideas for directions for the town. After organizing the ideas into themes, the larger community comes together, often in a town-meeting style gathering where the council can put the big ideas up on the wall and ask residents about their priorities.

Residents are also asked to think about what they can realistically achieve as a community and how they might make certain changes happen. The council will then bring experts to help the town set concrete action plans and connect them with resources to do that, before stepping back to let the communities themselves put those plans into action. The process overall takes about four months.

Vermont towns that have gone through the council’s process have addressed issues of affordable housing and addiction. They have come up with plans to encourage young people to move in, created Wi-Fi zones, started up local concerts on town greens, modernized local governments’ online presence, developed a community center and local store, and improved walkways and bike paths.

“It’s not rocket science,” Costello said. “It’s very direct and very much led by the community.”

The council raises money on its own, so it doesn’t have to charge towns for its services. (The strategic planning for each community costs about $35,000 in total.) It just asks that towns send out a letter inviting every resident to get involved and to host a community dinner to connect people — a total cost to the town of around $1,500.

Communities in rural Maine could benefit from connections to potential funding resources, said Tim Goff, executive director of the Fort Fairfield Chamber of Commerce. Most towns, including Fort Fairfield, would be likely to welcome the help, especially if it’s at a low cost.

“It doesn’t take an expert to come to my community and say, ‘This is what you need to invest in,’” Goff said. “The issue is, when you identify that, how do you fund it? Not every town is able to have a marketing or economic person. We don’t have the ability to hire a grant writer. It’s nice to bring people to the table; it’s nice to gather ideas and learn; but it’s even more helpful to be able to identify funding sources, especially towns struggling in these economic times.”

The Vermont Council on Rural Development also identifies key rural issues for nonpartisan policy analysis and action. It’s helped bring broadband to rural communities, preserved farmland and forests, established The Council on the Future of Vermont to set long-term goals and priorities for the state, established a food system consortium to connect college students with farms, and founded the Vermont Climate Change Economy Council to encourage green economic development.

The town of Greensboro, as a result of the council’s efforts, coordinated with WirelessVT to bring broadband services to the town in 2005. Since then, other major providers like Verizon have extended coverage to Greensboro, providing more options.

As a large summer community, Greensboro’s population balloons with visitors, and faster broadband helps them to stay connected. It also has improved the town’s operations, said Town Clerk and Treasurer Valdine Hall.

“For elections, everything has to be submitted electronically in Vermont, and our internet was so slow before that it would be a nightmare trying to do it. The file was so big, you couldn’t upload it,” Hall said. “It’s been a very good thing for the state.”

‘We’re able to bring people together’

Maine used to have a rural development council like the one in Vermont, but it never gained the same level of support, and it shut down in September.

The councils in both Maine and Vermont were the result of federal legislation. In 1990, the President’s Initiative on Rural America, known today as the National Rural Development Partnership, started a rural development council pilot program with eight states — Kansas, Maine, Mississippi, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas and Washington.

In 1992, those pilot initiatives became official programs, and similar work began in 24 other states, including Vermont. By 2009, there were 28 state rural development councils across the country developed by the federal government to focus on improving life in rural communities.

The Maine Rural Development Council’s operations ran fairly smoothly until the early 2000s, said Mark Hews, who was involved in the council from the beginning and served as both board member and interim executive director.

“Then money got tight, priorities changed, administrations changed,” he said. “Congress in subsequent farm bills didn’t provide any funding, and so many of the states, including Maine, chose to change direction and create their own nonprofits.”

Federal funding for the state rural development councils ended with the Farm Bill of 2006, forcing states to find money elsewhere. While Maine’s council turned to grants for specific projects, Vermont’s chose to establish a strong independent fundraising base.

Costello pursued not only state, regional and federal funding, but donations from banks, insurance companies, nonprofits and philanthropists. He also established a membership system.

“Our neutrality is sacred to us as a convener,” he said, referring to the wide base of the group’s funding. “We’re able to bring people together from across the board.”

Meanwhile, the Maine Rural Development Council, which changed its name to Maine Rural Partners when it became a nonprofit in 2006, remained largely reliant on grants for which it had to apply.

When Robin Beck joined Maine Rural Partners as a board member in 2014, the organization still did not have a fundraising base. It was a problem because grant money dried up with the culmination of each grant-funded project.

“There was no follow-up as far as starting to build a fundraising base among the people of Maine and surrounding areas,” she said. When she became the executive director in 2015, “We tried several different avenues of fundraising, and none of them were able to pan out.”

Maine Rural Partners closed in September 2016.

‘Link up with those communities’

Prior to Beck coming on board, Maine Rural Partners had a few programs, including an effort to help farms and the Aroostook Band of Micmacs reduce energy costs, but it wasn’t doing much in the way of community building — the primary work of Vermont’s rural development council.

“I didn’t see anything like that in their portfolio prior to me coming on,” Beck said.

She wanted to help rural communities the way the Vermont council was doing, and even started to prepare the towns of Liberty and Montville for a series of meetings where people could examine the area’s needs needs and develop a plan with specific goals. But she didn’t get the chance because the council ceased its operations.

Many communities, especially those in the counties that border Canada, could benefit from conversations about their future, Beck said.

“Those were our project areas, and no one else is touching those,” Beck said. “Our hope was to be able to link up with those communities, find out what kinds of projects they needed to get done, and hook them up with the funders and the project builders throughout the other parts of the state.”

Despite Maine Rural Partners’ closure, there’s still potential for Maine to establish another rural development council.

Both Beck and Hews agreed that for a new state rural development council to succeed in Maine, there would need to be an independent source of funds, not just grants. The private sector would need to support it.

“The folks that want to give you grants, they want to make sure that you’re sustainable on your own to do other projects because that money is going to end, and then what are you going to do?” Beck said. “In looking back at the way things had been run prior to me coming on, they should have built an independent giving base through individuals and businesses within the state.”

A new council would likely find support from other organizations.

GrowSmart Maine, which previously partnered with Maine Rural Partners, works to revitalize downtowns, conserve land and prevent sprawl. A new state rural development council would not overlap with what the organization is doing, GrowSmart Maine Executive Director Nancy Smith said.

“It’s very compatible with what we do,” she said. “We have a lot of partners we coordinate with now, and, of course if Maine did bring back a rural development council, I would certainly count GrowSmart as one of its members.”

To register for the summit on Rural Maine’s Next Economy, organized by Envision Maine, please visit Eventbrite.

Maine Focus is a journalism and community engagement initiative at the Bangor Daily News. To read our series on the future of rural Maine’s economy, please visit this page.

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