The western Maine town of Rangeley is seeing a boom as people seek a safe haven from the pandemic. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

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In the 1970s, that was a popular Maine bumper sticker. It meant “Keep People Out Of Maine.”

A drastic slowdown in the state’s population growth took place in following decades. In 2020, the trend reversed. This could be part of an historic national economic transformation.

The population grew in the 1970s by an annual average of 1.27 percent, more than most states in the Northeast. Some Mainers worried about changes that might come with the influx of people “from away.”

Without any formal action to discourage growth, the rate dropped. By the 2010-2019 decade it had fallen to a 0.12 percent annual increase, not even one-tenth of the earlier period. The share of the state’s population born in Maine was also declining.

The recent turnaround has been abrupt and sharp. It could change Maine and its economy.

While there is no formal analysis of the shift, it is worth considering four factors: climate warming, COVID-19, mass electronics and evolving values. Maine may provide clues to demographic change across the country.

Judging from the results on search engines, people are increasingly interested in finding the  best places to live as the climate changes. They are seeking places where the impact of warming will be limited and perhaps where it will produce benefits.

Unless you really liked winter decades ago, Maine was not where you would move. Mid-winter temperatures were often below zero. But now, in many places, that’s a rarity.

Let’s take January 31, usually a day in the coldest week of the year, in 1970 and the same date in 2020, a half-century later. The average 2020 temperatures in Bangor and Portland were each about 10 degrees warmer than in 1970. Forget about zero; in Portland it was 30, just two degrees below freezing.

Studies forecast that among the best places to live in the U.S. as the planet warms is going to be the Northeast. That produces a favorable rating for Maine, making it less challenging for people who dislike seriously cold weather.

COVID-19 made working remotely a necessity for some who found it yielded a surprisingly attractive lifestyle. If you don’t have to be in the office, the common workplace in a service economy, it may not matter where you live. As the lockdowns extended, for some people working at home became a desirable part of the “new normal.”

The increased speed and capacity of electronic communications and data transfers are key to the ability to work remotely. Government has increasingly focused on assisting the rapid increase of broadband for the broad population.

Not only does that encourage people to think about moving to places offering lifestyle advantages especially for families, but it opens new locations for employers. They don’t have to set up where the workers are located; the workers may come to them electronically.

Finally, Mainers themselves may be changing. A newly published novel, “The Midcoast” by Adam White, takes Damariscotta as an example. The town goes mainstream, to “trade ‘authenticity’ for what feels like an airbrushed portrait of itself,” as White writes. Maine itself becomes increasingly as if “from away,” part of a culturally homogenized country.

Each year, United Van Lines, a major national moving company, conducts a survey of who’s moving (not only their customers) and why. Its latest study revealed that in 2021, Maine became a leading state for in-migration. Last year, 58 percent of all moves were inbound and only 42 percent outbound.

Who’s coming?  Retirees and people seeking a new lifestyle and new jobs.  They are heavily 45-54 years old and with incomes of $100,000 or more.  Who’s leaving? Those who move for family reasons and retirees. They are 65 and older with incomes below $100,000.

The state leading in supply of new Mainers is Massachusetts, while the leading destination is Florida.

Won’t Maine’s high cost of living including taxes prevent a real turnaround? The cost difference with other states is largely a myth, because sellers take market conditions into account when they price their products. These days, gasoline costs essentially the same in Maine as in Boston.

Maine’s cost of living was found to be a plus rather than a negative for movers, despite the state having higher taxes than Northeast competitors and Florida. Movers may consider taxes as part of the overall cost of living. And more higher income residents could boost tax revenues, removing the need for future tax increases.

The bottom line, if one is already emerging, is that Maine is changing and it may reflect broader national trends. The nature of the American economy may be transformed by the warming  climate and the effects of COVID-19 plus the wider spread of advanced communications and technology.

The result for Maine may be increased population and prosperity, but at some cost to its unique personality.


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Gordon Weil, Opinion contributor

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.