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Larry Barker is the president and CEO of Machias Savings Bank and a lifelong resident of Washington County. Gigi Georges is the author of “Downeast: Five Maine Girls and the Unseen Story of Rural America,” and splits her time between Southwest Harbor and New Hampshire.
Washington County is distinguished by active, caring communities that take great pride in their home region. Yet, it is often overlooked by outsiders and visitors and underestimated in its potential.
Earlier this year the region received a boost that will help lift its profile and fuel its economic health: a $375,000 grant from the Working Communities Challenge. This grant is well-positioned for success, particularly in the face of economic uncertainty and the wake of the pandemic, as people in the region rally with their trademark community determination and rootedness.
Our own deeply meaningful experiences and love of the area continue to motivate us to support Washington County communities. “Downeast: Five Maine Girls and the Unseen Story of Rural America,” authored by Gigi, chronicles recent patterns of high school graduates being more interested in finding ways to stay in their hometowns than leave. Her research debunks the misperception that rural places are bastions of “hopelessness and despair,” revealing instead deep social capital and sustained traditions of neighbors helping neighbors.
Larry sees this phenomenon directly as a lifelong Mainer who found his path to making a difference in the state through his role at Machias Savings Bank and takes pride in his own children’s desires to stay and thrive in Washington County.
The turnaround is partly being driven by re-thought definitions of success. Young people are looking beyond how much money they might make in potentially adverse urban settings and embracing priorities that matter more – family, life balance, a strong sense of community, and the character and camaraderie that can be found in rural places. But as committed as many young people are to the notion of “staying and building,” they still face hurdles. Job opportunities can be scarce, and too few pay a living wage. It can be hard to find the right skills training for some available jobs. Many lack access to transportation to pursue career opportunities in population centers within commuting distance. And adequate, affordable housing is too often out of reach.
Steps are being taken to offer the quality of life these young people might otherwise seek out elsewhere. The local community is making coordinated investments in young people to promote living-wage careers and decrease child poverty. Programs exist for young and middle-aged people to go back to school, start businesses, and find jobs. A new career and technical education center is up and running in Columbia and new people continue to arrive, seeking better lives than they’d had in distant, and often more urban, environments. They’re standing side-by-side with dedicated multi-generational Mainers, taking key roles as teachers and mentors committed to helping the youth of the region succeed.
Larry has experienced this type of support firsthand. Growing up in a family of business owners, he established a tenacious work ethic early on, and dinner conversations revolving around issues pertaining to small business inspired an entrepreneurial drive in Larry. Today, Larry’s children are following in his footsteps, making a living Downeast by operating inns and motels and lobster fishing.
As the current CEO of Machias Savings Bank, Larry is committed to keeping its headquarters in Machias to drive not just employment but long-term career opportunities in the region, and to provide crucial funding to the small and medium-size businesses that are vital to communities around Maine.
Gigi and her husband Jeff are donating book proceeds to a new Downeast Exploration Fund through the Maine Seacoast Mission, which for many upcoming years will offer youth of our region opportunities to participate in a variety of enrichment activities and programs. The new fund has kindled interest in other potential donors around Mount Desert Island and elsewhere.
Resilience is a trademark quality of Mainers. It’s on vivid display among young people in the region who are eager to give their all to the communities they call home – and their communities are ready to support them. We’re excited to see the next steps in the future of rural Maine.