Credit: George Danby

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Rob Glover is an associate professor of political science at the University of Maine. Nicole Brown is a ninth generation Mainer who works from home in Hampden for a national nonprofit when she’s not volunteering, building things and growing flowers.

Maine is considering replacing its current state license plate with a new plate modeled on the state’s 1901 “lone pine” flag. The public fracas has quickly devolved into “chickadee vs. pine tree.” Honestly, we had no idea how passionate some of you are about the chickadee, but we respect it.

We are unabashed supporters of “1901 flag” everything. But we’re willing to put that aside for a second to suggest instead that we reconsider the omnipresent “Vacationland” emblazoned on nearly all Maine license plates.

Unsurprisingly, we love the new design. The chickadee plate is wonderful, as are actual chickadees. We are well-established friends of the chickadees. We buy so much birdseed that the folks at the hardware store assume we are amateur poultry farmers and we’re too embarrassed to correct them. The memorable simplicity and uniqueness of the 1901 flag are what gives it the edge. But if you’re “ride or die” for that adorable chickadee, there’s probably little we can say to convince you otherwise.

But who among us has not been at least a little irked by Vacationland? Surely, Maine relies upon tourism. In 2021, we welcomed more than 15 million visitors to the state, and our post-pandemic tourism recovery led the nation. Those visitors bring revenue, and support thousands of jobs. However, does anyone really think those tourists are coming here because of a slogan on a license plate? Where did it even come from?

The Vacationland mystery thickens when we dig into the history of Maine’s license plates. According to Maine’s state historian, the origin of Vacationland was likely a ploy by Depression-era lawmakers to lure tourists to the state in 1936. Yet we residents of Maine have involuntarily borne the results of that Depression-era marketing gambit on our vehicles for more than 86 years!

Vacationland smacks of desperation: “Come give us money!” it pleads. In part, this is because those were desperate times. But Maine has grown and evolved since 1936. The slogan on our license plates has not.

Vacationland embodies a mindset that denigrates our majestic state. Maine is your plaything. Come use it as you see fit. When you decide you want to meander back our way, we’ll be here waiting for you.

Don’t worry about that rental car you got stuck while doing donuts at low tide. We thought it was wicked funny. The good folks with police, fire, and environmental services were happy to help. That server you asked to take your order in a “real Maine accent?” They loved that. And your 10% tip. Just another workday in Vacationland.

Jokes aside, Maine’s reliance upon tourism drives and worsens structural inequalities in our state, most notably with affordable housing. We face a housing crisis driven in no small part by an explosion of short-term rentals, effectively pricing middle- and working-class Mainers out of desirable communities. At the state level, the numbers are astounding: 72% of Maine’s vacant housing units are set aside for seasonal, recreational or occasional use.

A slogan on a license plate is not solely to blame for such complex social problems. But symbolically, Vacationland conveys that Maine is a place you enjoy without ever having to commit.

Maine needs people who will put down roots, and care for those who already have. And no, we should not put “Staycationland” on the license plate as was proposed in 2019, because that is objectively awful. Folks who register their cars here aren’t on vacation – stay or otherwise.

Dirigo. I lead. That is what should replace Vacationland. It’s already our state motto. It’s powerful, simple, Latin. More importantly, it captures the essence of a state in which hardworking,, resilient people make a commitment to Maine and collaborate to map out its future. Whatever you think about the proposed plate design, perhaps we can agree on this.