Choosing Maine: Return of the Natives
Among her many accomplishments, the University of Maine women's basketball coach Cindy Blodgett might also be Maine's de facto homecoming queen.
The Clinton native has been a Maine celebrity since her schoolgirl days as the star of the Lawrence High basketball team. She then helped create a buzz around University of Maine women's basketball with her on-court magic between 1994 and 1998. Upon graduation, she headed off to Cleveland to play in the WNBA and subsequently played professionally in Europe and South Korea.
Until last year, Blodgett had been living in the Boston area and working as an assistant coach first at Boston University and then at Brown University. When the UMaine job came open, Blodgett jumped at the chance to leave the big city and return to the scene of her youthful triumphs as head coach.
"I've always found Maine people in general tend to be friendlier," she says, busily preparing for practice in her Memorial Gym office overlooking the Orono campus. "We're not going a hundred miles per hour. People are more patient with one another in Maine."
A survey prepared in advance of a 2004 Governor's Summit on Youth Migration documented two painful revelations of the obvious - young people leave Maine primarily in search of better jobs; they remain in or return to Maine because they want to be near family. Cindy Blodgett was fortunate enough to get the best of both worlds.
"My family comes from here," says Blodgett of the reason for her return. "Maine always was home."
Homing in, reversing a trend
Blodgett is one of a growing number of native Mainers who have returned to succeed in Maine after starting careers elsewhere. This largely unexamined return migration challenges the conventional assumption that Maine suffers from a brain drain of talented young people.
In conversations with seven young natives who have come home to Maine, several themes repeat themselves. If opportunities are limited, you may have to create your own. If Maine is a tough place to do business, it is also an easy place to make a real difference. If you think you can't compete from Maine, maybe you're not thinking big enough. And, perhaps most importantly, if you think young people don't want to live and work in Maine, you're wrong. Maine natives have a powerful homing instinct.
No one better exemplifies this last point than Martin Grohman, who grew up on a small family dairy farm in Carthage and graduated from Gould Academy in 1985 and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a degree in chemical engineering in 1989. He then embarked on a ten-year career selling and servicing wood composite extrusion machinery for Cincinnati Milacron.
In 1998 Grohman moved back to Maine, worked part-time for Milacron, and began developing a business plan that led to the founding of Correct Building Products in Biddeford in 1999. Correct Building Products became profitable manufacturing Correct Deck wood composite decking within fifteen months. By 2005 Inc. magazine had named it one of America's fastest growing private companies. Today, Correct Building Products occupies the 125,000 square foot former Biddeford Textile mill, has annual sales of $30 million, and employs 75 people.
Grohman started Correct Building Products with five hundred thousand dollars from "the bank of friends and family" and a timely hundred thousand-dollar grant from the Maine Technology Institute. His innovation was to develop a way to manufacture wood composite decking by combining sawdust with polypropylene instead of the more toxic polyethylene. He also responded to market demands by creating decking in different colors and with a tongue-and-groove fastener system.
Correct Building Products is a twenty-first century green manifestation of Maine's traditional wood products industry. The company combines tons of sawdust - the by-product of the manufacture of golf tees, furniture pegs, tongue depressors, and ice-cream sticks - with recycled plastic yogurt containers to extrude mile after mile of decking planks twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
The great irony of Martin Grohman's successful return to Maine is that it defies the conventional wisdom that Maine is not a great place to start a business, especially a manufacturing business. But complain all you want about the poor business climate, high taxes, and expensive energy to Marty Grohman. He'll point out that Maine is an ideal source of raw materials, is cheap to ship out of and expensive to ship into, and is close to the biggest market for decking (New England and the Northeast).
"One of Maine's greatest assets is that it keeps competitors away," says Grohman. "People think it's a bad place to do business but a great place to live. That makes it a great place to do business. And let's face it, people want to live here."
Spoken like a true Maine native. And like an increasing number of Maine repatriates, Grohman now understands that if you can make it anywhere, you can make it in Maine.
Creating your own opportunities
The appeal of Maine for its native sons and daughters is natural, but in an effort to intensify the homing instinct, as a follow-up to the Summit on Youth Migration, the Maine Development Foundation helped establish Realize! Maine, a program aimed at attracting and retaining talented young people.
One of the ways, Realize! Maine is trying to win more young leaders is by helping to establish regional networks of young professionals, among them Bangor Fusion, Propel in Portland, KV Connect in Waterville, Midcoast Magnet, Oh! in the Oxford Hills, Young People of the Lewiston-Auburn Area, Momentum Aroostook, and the Boomerang Club in Dover-Foxcroft.
In January, for example, the Boomerang Club attracted eighty young people to a Super Bowl party at the Center Theatre in Dover-Foxcroft. "Boomerang Club is a kind of tongue-in-cheek name because so many of us grew up here, went away, and then boomeranged back," says Tracy Michaud Stutzman, the club's director.
A 1992 graduate of Foxcroft Academy, Stutzman was working on her PhD in anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh while her husband, Sunny, was doing graduate work in industrial design when she got a call from the Piscataquis County Economic Development Council asking her to come home to coordinate a survey of local artisans and craftspeople.
Stutzman returned to Dover-Foxcroft in 1999, conducted the survey, and ended up establishing the Maine Highlands Guild, which between 2002 and 2007 worked with over three hundred craftspeople to bring in $1.2 million in direct sales and indirect grants. In 2007, she helped merge Maine Highlands Guild with the more-established Maine Crafts Association.
Working out of an office in the old Mayo Street Elementary School, she attended as a girl, Stutzman, an energetic and entrepreneurial young woman, now directs the Maine Crafts Association. In that capacity she has helped to get a Center for Maine Crafts constructed as part of the new West Gardiner Service plaza on the Maine Turnpike and to create an associate degree program in traditional and contemporary crafts at Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor.
"We never thought we would come back to Dover-Foxcroft," recalls Stutzman. "When we left it was `Get out of here. There's nothing for you here.' There's no reason to come back to Dover-Foxcroft except that it's a great place to live. We just had to create our own jobs."
Andrew Allen, of Mount Desert Island, heard exactly the same tune when he told the owner of the yacht he was skippering that he had decided to move home to Maine. "Andy," his boss told him, "there are no opportunities for you in Maine. You'd be much better off staying in South Florida where there are opportunities."
A 1995 graduate of Mount Desert High School, Allen attended Maine Maritime Academy for a year before completing his college education at USM. While in college, he studied on his own to earn a hundred-ton captain's license. Upon graduation in 2000, following in the maritime footsteps of a long line of Maine natives, Allen embarked on a successful career as a yacht captain, sailing pleasure boats from Maine to the Caribbean and across the Atlantic.
In 2005, having saved enough money by living free aboard the boats he commanded, Allen teamed up with his brother, James, manager of a Mount Desert Island boatyard, to purchase the Sea Princess, a forty-nine-foot, seventy-five-passenger tourist boat that has operated out of Northeast Harbor since 1968. In 2006, in order to generate year-round income, the Allen brothers purchased a Resort Maps franchise for Mount Desert Island. In 2007, they bought the Boothbay region franchise, which has Allen in Boothbay Harbor selling ads for the illustrated tourist map.
"Quality of life is a huge thing with me," Allen says of the reason he returned to Maine. "If I were still in South Florida, my quality of life would not be what it is here. More and more people are realizing that there is more to life than making a buck."
But when it does come to making a buck, Andrew Allen, like resourceful natives since time immemorial, has realized, "Business opportunities won't come to you in Maine. You have to go out and find them."
Getting involved, making a difference
"When I went to college I had no real intention of returning to Maine, but I wanted to come back to Maine by the time I went to law school," says Yellow Light Breen. "Being away for an extended period of time makes you appreciate the things you took for granted growing up in rural Maine." Breen lists the things he took for granted as "the natural environment, the authenticity of the people, and the sense of community."
The first chairman of Realize! Maine, Breen is now vice president and chief strategic officer of Bangor Savings Bank. Goateed, bespectacled, dressed casually in a blue Bangor Savings fleece vest, Breen sips cider at a downtown Bangor bagel shop as he talks about growing up on a farm in St. Albans, graduating from Nokomis High School in 1989, and going off to Harvard, where he earned both his undergraduate and law degrees. After serving a federal clerkship in Oklahoma, Breen decided to come home.
Breen was only able to afford to come back to Maine, however, because Harvard Law subsidizes student loans for graduates who go into public service. Thus, in 1997, Breen went to work as a legal advisor to Governor Angus King, then working on King's re-election campaign before going to the Department of Education where he became an advocate for Maine's laptop computer initiative.
"There's a huge amount of opportunity in public service in a place like Maine," says Breen. "You can just dive right in and be involved in a very significant way. The politics and the community institutions here are very transparent and very easy to participate in actively."
Amanda Vamvakias Rand agrees. Like Yellow Breen, she is a Harvard-educated attorney who found she could make more of a difference back home in Maine. A graduate of Duke University and Harvard Law, Rand now contributes her expertise in trust and estate law to the University of Southern Maine Foundation.
"My alma maters gave me wonderful opportunities," says Rand, "but they are not places that I, as a lowly alum, could contribute to that much." Rand, who grew up in Falmouth, was hired right out of law school in 2001 by Ropes & Gray, one of Boston's leading law firms. "My intention was to work for four or five years and then move home," she says. "Estate lawyers groups are so much smaller in Portland, I was afraid I'd have to wait."
Both Rand and her husband, Mark, a lobsterman who was commuting seasonally between Boston and Maine, were thrilled, therefore, when, after only one year, a position opened up at Pierce Atwood, one of Portland's leading law firms. Amanda was expecting the Rands' first child, and they both wanted to raise their family in Maine.
"Having a family would have been very different in Boston," says Rand, who now lives in Falmouth with her husband and the couple's two young children. "I would have been barely seeing the children, working six or seven days a week and some nights, and paying through the nose for a nanny."
In making the move back to Maine, however, Rand took a 50 percent cut in pay. "The cost of living was certainly not half as much as Cambridge," she says. "The less we got used to that lifestyle the better."
But Pierce Atwood allowed Rand to work just three days a week so she could care for her children. Rand now works four days a week in a boutique law firm specializing in estate administration. All in all, Rand believes the move home was worth it despite the financial sacrifice.
"It's not a nameless, faceless community," she says, "and that's important to me."
Rand estimates that about half of the sixty-five students in her 1994 Falmouth High graduating class still live in Maine, adding, "I have friends wrestling with how to get home."
Thinking big, making it in the Pine Tree State
John Coleman, co-founder and CEO of the Portland-based advertising and marketing firm Via, too, wrestled with the expatriate's dilemma - how to get home but still get ahead.
Coleman grew up in Augusta where he graduated from Cony High School in 1981. In 1985, after earning a degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Maine, he went to work for Asea Brown Boveri (ABB), spending time in Ohio, Arkansas, and Germany before returning to Maine in 1987 to serve as ABB's regional sales rep for computer systems that run paper mills.
Over the next five years, Coleman repeatedly passed up opportunities for advancement that would have required his young family to move out-of-state. Having hit a self-imposed glass ceiling in his career, Coleman decided to start his own business.
In 1993, Coleman co-founded Via, a little ad and marketing group that over the next fifteen years grew into an agency with $110 million in billings and a hundred employees. Via managed this spectacular growth with only one Maine account - TD Banknorth. Other Via clients include MaidenForm, Puma, HBO, CBS Radio, News Corp, Colonial Life, and, most high profile of all, the marketing of the rebuilt 7 World Trade Center in New York.
John Coleman's motto might well be "Think big."
"The one thing I'd like to see this state aspire to is higher expectations," he says. "[Famed Portland designer] Angela Adams is a perfect example of that. She has raised the bar."
Coleman, who has built Via into a major player primarily by hiring talent from California and New York, says when it comes to recruiting professionals "more and more we're finding Maine is actually a positive."
"The great thing about doing business from this state is the incredible quality of life," says Coleman, comfortably slumped on a couch in his office in an old brick warehouse on the edge of Portland's Old Port. "It's an inspiring place to be, and we're in a business that's about ideas and inspiration. The downside to being here is that I'm not bumping into prospects at the market. That means we have to be better than the best people in New York in order to compete."
A Yarmouth resident, Coleman embodies the "think globally, act locally" ethic. And he says he enjoys the fact that he can roll out of bed in Maine, be at a meeting in Manhattan by 8:30, and make it home for supper and his kids' sporting events by six.
"I love New York. I love working there," he says. "I love living here."
Coleman was in Manhattan earlier this year for a meeting with media baron Rupert Murdoch. As he rode the elevator up to Murdoch's office, Coleman was naturally a little nervous at the prospect of meeting with News Corporation's powerful chairman. But what he saw when the elevator doors parted - the design work of a fellow Mainer - put him right at ease.
"I got off on the eighth floor," Coleman recalls, "and there was a gorgeous sixty-foot-long Angela Adams rug. It was very reassuring. It made me feel like I was home."
SIDEBAR: Brain Drain? What Brain Drain?
Conventional wisdom might not be so wise after all.
Maine may always be home, but it has also been exporting its youth for generations. The landmark 2006 Brookings Institution report, Charting Maine's Future, found that "the number of twenty-five- to thirty-four-year-olds residing in Maine dropped from about 205,000 in 1990 to 158,000 in 2000, a 23.2-percent decline." According to the think-tank, "Maine lost young working-age adults at a rate three times faster than the nation."
The Brookings report, however, also detected a more recent trend toward youth in-migration in the twenty-first century, noting "nearly 25,000 net migrants between the ages of 25 and 44 and over 13,000 under the age of 25 moved into Maine from 2001 to 2004."
In fact, reports of Maine's much-lamented brain drain may be somewhat exaggerated. In his 2006 study, Maine's College Graduates: Where They Go and Why, David Silvernail of the University of Southern Maine found that 66 percent of Maine college graduates either stayed in Maine or returned to Maine after college.
"These findings are particularly noteworthy," wrote Silvernail, "because they suggest that Maine is not losing as many of its college-educated young people as originally assumed."