8 Crazy Maine Ideas

Maine Ideas

We can send a man to the moon, but we can’t take a 200-mph bullet train from Portland to Belfast? Or get Maine its own NBA team? Or fly direct from Bangor to Brussels? We asked our contributors to throw skepticism out the window and float a few moonshot proposals that’d impact Maine for the better. The ideas they brought back are outrageous, quixotic, totally impractical. Or are they?

Bring a world-class, Guggenheim-style art museum to Augusta!

8 Crazy Maine ideas

Why: The Kennebec is lovely and the State House is grand, but let’s face it, parts of our capital are downright dumpy, and downtown could use some revitalization. To elevate the city (and economically anemic central Maine), let’s give Augusta an architecturally daring museum — perhaps on the weedy lot across from the newly (and beautifully) renovated Lithgow Public Library. Make it Maine’s first collecting institution dedicated exclusively to modern and contemporary art, and we’ll plug a thematic hole in the Maine Art Museum Trail while we’re at it.

To see a similar investment paying economic dividends, look a couple hundred miles away to North Adams, Massachusetts (with around 14,000 people, even smaller than Augusta, population 19,000). The town’s formerly abandoned factory buildings now house the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, the largest American museum of its kind. Since MASSMoCA opened in 1999, its boosters are quick to point out, local unemployment has fallen from nearly seven times the state average to roughly on par with it.

Why it’s crazy: State arts funding in Maine is roughly half the national average, making tens of millions of dollars for an edgy arts palace a tough sell. Plus, what if nobody comes?

Why it might not be so crazy: Architecturally splashy museums with contemporary collections tend to have an if-you-build-it-they-will-come factor. The most famous example is in Bilbao, Spain, where the Frank Gehry–designed Guggenheim Museum Bilbao opened in 1997, transforming a run-down Basque city into a global tourism hotspot. Today, the museum attracts a million visitors a year, and planners worldwide use “the Bilbao effect” as shorthand for museum-spurred urban renewal (or rural renewal, seeing as the phrase is frequently invoked to describe North Adams’ transformation as well).

And while MASSMoCA and the Guggenheim Bilbao benefited from public funding, there’ve also been small-town “Bilbao effects” spurred by philanthropy. Walmart heiress Alice Walton used foundation money to fund the 5-year-old Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas (population 40,000), which has seen more than 2 million visitors (and employs more than 200 people). In East Lansing, Michigan (population 49,000), entrepreneur Eli Broad seeded the sleek new Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum with just $28 million.

That’s small change for some of our billionaire summer homeowners, and Maine has passed larger bond measures to fund transit, school repairs, and research and development. Maybe it’s time to start talking about the Augusta effect. — LANCE TAPLEY

Turn Bangor International Airport into a bustling regional hub!

8 Crazy Maine ideas

Why: We love the Portland International Jetport as much as the next guy (those rocking chairs, tho!), but ask any Down East dweller how much they enjoy shuttling in-laws 3½ hours to catch a flight. Right now, Bangor International Airport (BGR) serves five cities via three year-round carriers, compared to Portland’s six carriers and 12 year-round destinations. Making those numbers more comparable could boost northern Maine’s economy — and offer more flexibility and convenience to Mainers from the midcoast on up.

BGR marketing manager Risteen Bahr has the tough job of persuading commercial airline execs to add Bangor to their routes. Every year, she hits 20 or so industry events armed with PowerPoints laying out her O&D (that’s origination and destination research). If the O&D shows Bangor pulling lots of visitors from Georgia, Bahr might pitch American Airlines on adding a route from Atlanta. Right now, she has her eyes on that southern hub, Charlotte, and Boston, and she’s pushing for international charters to London, which haven’t flown from BGR since the 1990s. Add these routes, Bahr says, and the Queen City’s passenger traffic
could increase by close to
20 percent.

Why it’s crazy: The competition’s stiff — hundreds of airport marketing managers work the same pitch circuit, eyeing each other in perpetual frenemy mode. And compared to many of those competitor towns, Bangor (population 33,000) is small and isolated. Plus, Bahr says, airline capacity is as important as demand — and that’s out of her control. “It’s like you have to hope that some other service is going to fail so that there’s an aircraft available to you,” she says. “It’s kind of a strange thing.”

Why it might not be so crazy: Bahr’s had a string of recent successes. United Airlines, which bailed on Bangor in 1993, returned in 2014 with a seasonal Chicago route and this summer added seasonal flights to Newark. Seasonal service to LaGuardia went online this year too, after four years of Bahr lobbying American Airlines. And if the notion of international flights from Bangor seems fanciful, consider that Finnair offered a Bangor-to-Helsinki route as recently as 2003, and the feds recently licensed BGR to refuel
transatlantic flights to Cuba — a move that potentially opens the door to passenger traffic if/when the U.S. lifts its tourism ban. — SARA ANNE DONNELLY

Build a coastal equivalent of the Appalachian Trail!

8 Crazy Maine ideas

Why: Because we want to hike it! Also, because hikers drop $27 million annually in towns along the AT, and even a fraction of that windfall would be a boon to coastal towns that need it, particularly Down East. A footpath winding from Kittery to Eastport would bring communities together and link fragmented conservation lands via green corridors. Also, did we mention we want to hike it?

Why it’s crazy: “I think it would be a total pipe dream,” says Simon Rucker, executive director of the Maine Appalachian Trail Land Trust. “We work on big blocks of land where you can cover a big swath of trail miles with just a couple of landowners. Working on the coast, you have home lots, because it’s such valuable property, and on top of that, you have thousands of them. So just to go a mile, you might have to go through
10 landowners.”

Between private homeowners, hundreds of municipalities, and a constellation of local land trusts, the sheer number of stakeholders makes the prospect of a Maine Coast Trail pretty daunting. A single aggrieved landowner or change in ownership could force substantial reroutes and other headaches.

Why it might not be so crazy: Hey, any long-distance trail project seems impossible until you start piecing it together. The 3,100-mile Continential Divide Trail, proposed in the 1960s and designated in 1978, is still only 72 percent complete — the rest just follows roads, and it nonetheless hosts hundreds of thru-hikers a year. Closer to home, the 138-mile Maine section of the International Appalachian Trail (from Katahdin to New Brunswick) is still more road walking than trail hiking, but the IAT swaps a few dozen miles of pavement for footpaths each year. Don Hudson, an IAT founder and president of the IAT’s Maine chapter, says the notion of a Maine Coast Trail doesn’t strike him as far-fetched. “If you were to look at a map of the preserves and coastal footpaths already in place, I’m sure it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to begin linking them,” he says. “Rights of way, landowner permissions, and other details might take some time to sort out, but if the IAT is any example, where there is a will, there is a way.” — BRIAN KEVIN

Let artists, musicians, writers, and creatives live income-tax free!

8 Crazy Maine ideas
Maine’s aging population and stagnant growth mean we could use some new arrivals, and a creative-class tax haven could be catnip for entrepreneurial types.

Why: Maine’s cultural heritage is as distinctive as its natural heritage, and supporting the creative economy benefits all Mainers. Research by the New England Foundation for the Arts suggests that every dollar spent by Maine arts and cultural organizations generates two dollars in sales for Maine businesses like contractors, utilities, supply providers, marketing firms, and other enterprises servicing artists.

“In the long run, [artists] bring economic value to a place far beyond the benefits granted to them,” says Donna McNeil, former director of the Maine Arts Commission.

What’s more, Maine’s aging population and stagnant growth mean we could use some new arrivals, and a creative-class tax haven could be catnip for entrepreneurial types and the remote workers who bring in out-of-state dollars (e.g., the artist whose income derives from New York gallery sales, or the writer collecting royalty checks — both of whom spend locally).

“Maine needs more resources of all kinds for its long-term well-being,” says Jennifer Hutchins, who worked to entice new Mainers as the former director of Creative Portland (she’s now director of the Maine Association of Nonprofits). “Attracting people who create, innovate, and investigate the forward edges of our human existence can only be a net positive for our economy.”

Why it’s crazy: It takes state revenue off the books. Not a single other state does it. Also, do you want to be the guy telling the lobsterman that his avante-garde electronic-synth composer neighbor isn’t going to pay taxes?

Why it might not be so crazy: There are models. Planners have long touted the link between economic growth and a concentration of artists and creative businesses, and many cities offer controlled rents, tax exemptions, and other incentives to spur the creative economy.

For an example on a larger-than-Maine scale, look to Ireland, where artists, writers, and composers have been exempted from income taxes since 1969. The Irish plan nixes the first 50,000 euros (about $56,000) of income derived from the sale of books, art, and music recognized as having cultural or artistic merit. In a review last year, the country’s Department of Finance gave the policy a thumbs-up, suggesting it offers more bang for one’s euro than government grant programs. Meanwhile, The Irish Times has gushed that “part of [the policy’s] legacy is the large population of immigrant artists the scheme has persuaded to become Irish residents.” The Irish economy, by the way, grew by 26 percent last year — okay, maybe corporate investors had more to do with that than artists, but anyway, it’s no blarney. — EDGAR ALLEN BEEM

Steal a major-league sports team from Massachusetts!

8 Crazy Maine ideas

Why: When it comes to pro sports (and only pro sports!), Maine is essentially an extension of Massachusetts — the Red Sox, Patriots, Bruins, and Celtics have fanatical followings that stretch clear to the St. John River. Economists, meanwhile, are dubious about the regional economic benefits of hosting sports stadiums. So for Maine to court its own powerhouse franchise seems foolish. When pro sports teams do tend to prompt local economic growth is when they attract a substantial audience from away — like when streams of Bangorite Sox fans caravan to Fenway. Stealing a biggie team from down south reverses that flow of visitors and dollars. Plus: the intangible, immeasurable benefit of noisy home-turf pride! (And who doesn’t want to hear radio play-by-play in a Maine accent?)

Why it’s crazy: Try getting a loudmouthed Boston sports fan to concede a point on any topic whatsoever. Now, try getting him to concede his favorite team. Sure, the Patriots once abandoned Beantown, but that was 45 years ago, and the team’s current home of Foxborough ain’t exactly Dover-Foxcroft — it’s still within the greater Boston metro, which has a population of 4.6 million. That’s a nice pool from which to draw season-ticket holders, and Boston’s the headquarters for many corporate sponsors.

Why it might not be so crazy: There’ve been no seismic shifts among New England sports teams in decades, but there have been tremors. In 1981, before funding fell through, the Bruins nearly moved to Salem, New Hampshire. With traffic, that’s an hour from Boston. What’s another 20 minutes to York County? And before he settled on Foxborough, Patriots owner Robert Kraft threatened moves even farther afield — first to Providence, Rhode Island, and then to Hartford, Connecticut.

In the short term, Maine’s best hope is probably the Celtics, the only Boston team that doesn’t own the building it plays in (TD Garden belongs to the Bruins). So, let’s say the Celtics want a home of their own — why not in Portland, where they already have a toehold via their Development League affiliate, the Maine Red Claws? We could cite social media stats suggesting Mainers are more passionate about New England sports than the rest of the region. Or we could just tell you that during Deflategate, a Biddeford man hired a plane to fly over NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s Scarborough vacation home, urging him to go back to New York. Now that’s loyalty. — ROB SNEDDON

Make outdoor learning as fundamental to public schooling as math and reading!

8 Crazy Maine ideas

Why: A growing body of research suggests that strategically implemented outdoor learning programs boost student attendance, fitness levels, and even test scores in reading, math, and science — and advocates claim tougher-to-measure benefits to students’ motivation, confidence, and leadership abilities. Even beyond all that, says Mark Berry, president and CEO of the Schoodic Institute research and learning center, an entrenched outdoor-ed curriculum is a chance for Maine to play to its strengths and attract young families to the state.

“We need to have something to offer educationally that sets us apart,” Berry says, “and the natural world defines Maine’s character and identity. . . . In 20 years, we could be known as a place where our schools are associated with outstanding outdoor-education opportunities.”

Why it’s crazy: In an era of national Common Core standards and statewide educational assessments, site-specific outdoor learning is anything but standardized. Education funding is perennially tight, and any new curriculum has to wedge its way into already jam-packed classroom schedules — what gets bumped to accommodate an hour spent outdoors?

Why it might not be so crazy: If any state’s going to weave outdoor learning into its public-school curriculum, Maine has the pedigree for it. Our entrenched summer-camp culture and 120-year-old Maine Guide tradition have been petri dishes for outdoor ed. For decades, fixtures like Wiscasset’s Chewonki and Lincolnville’s Tanglewood 4-H Camp have pioneered strategies and attracted leaders in environmental pedagogy. Those institutions, along with the Schoodic Institute and others, already partner with Maine public schools to help fund residential outdoor-learning experiences through grants and scholarships.

Other funding models are emerging too. This month, Oregonians vote on a ballot measure to divert $22 million in state lottery profits to guarantee all middle-school students a weeklong, outdoor field-science program in either fifth or sixth grade. That’s 51,000 students in Oregon — in Maine, the number would be closer to just 14,000.

Maine’s other great advantage for outdoor ed? With relatively few urban schools, the curriculum need not revolve around field trips and busing. As backers like Berry point out, “We don’t have too many schools that don’t have natural resources right outside their doors.” — B.K.

Connect Brunswick and Eastport with high-speed passenger rail!

8 Crazy Maine ideas

Why: Because wouldn’t you avoid driving Route 1 at least a few months out of the year if you could? Maine’s coastal counties account for more than half its population, and the winding, scenic Route 1 thrums with summer tourist traffic — as many as 22,000 vehicles a day pass through Wiscasset in July and August. A high-speed rail line up the coast could take many of those cars off the road and bring more tourists (and their dollars) farther Down East (consider that Amtrak’s Downeaster line, linking Boston to Brunswick, carries 70,000 tourists a year without even accessing the vacation Shangri-Las of the midcoast, Acadia, and beyond). Or forget tourists — how many Portlanders would daytrip to Rockland if they could get there in an hour and read Down East while they’re doing it? How many Washington County residents would come south for a weekend shopping trip?

Why it’s crazy: A billion reasons, and they’re all dollar bills. Rail projects require big investment — particularly ones involving the kind of state-of-the-art “bullet trains” that California’s using to link San Francisco and Anaheim, to the tune of $64 billion. Right now, Maine rail advocates can’t even get the Department of Transportation to release $250,000 the legislature authorized for a viability study of a proposed line to Montreal.

One other snag — no coastal track exists between Rockland and Searsport, so somebody has to build it, further ratcheting up the costs.

Why it might not be so crazy: There is a feasible route, says Tony Donovan, director of the Maine Rail Transit Coalition, though it skips the midcoast. A mostly state-owned track links Brunswick and Bangor via Augusta, and from there, a
133-mile railway dips to Ellsworth and skirts the Bold Coast up to Calais (it’s currently the multi-use Down East Sunrise Trail, but Donovan says it could revert). For a cool billion, Donovan estimates, that line could be up and running with brand-new cars capable of speeds up to 100 mph. Where does the cash come from? In Texas, Florida, Minnesota, and elsewhere, high-speed rail backers are eschewing public funds for private (often foreign) investment, and Donovan says he can “absolutely” envision scenarios where rail investors plunk money into Maine. Maybe they’ll even lay some track on the midcoast, if Wiscasset traffic gets bad enough. — B.K.

Create a gonzo new statewide winter holiday — with fire!

8 Crazy Maine ideas

Why: We so rarely get new holidays anymore, and our winter celebrations are staggered and local. But Maine’s a winter state, and our cold months deserve their equivalent of the Fourth of July — a big, unifying spectacle. So here’s the idea: a state holiday in the depths of winter, featuring public bonfires in every town. Bonfire Night would transcend Maine’s geographic and cultural divides (imagine the view from the air!), and with warming and less predictable winters sinking many civic festivals, it’s a needed alternative to soirees that depend on snow.

Why it’s crazy: Fire’s dangerous. And yeah, with 432 incorporated towns and 23 cities on board, it’d be a lot of smoke. Plus, declaring an official state holiday requires an act of the legislature, which hasn’t designated one since adding Martin Luther King Day in 1986. As recently as 2013, legislators handily squashed a bill to give legal holiday status to Election Day.

Why it might not be so crazy: There’s a Bonfire Night tradition just waiting to be rekindled. In the early 20th century, towns around New England commonly lit bonfires on the night before the Fourth — an organized effort, explained a 2011 Atlantic article, to replace “small gatherings in each neighborhood of the increasingly stratified cities [with] a single, massive affair.” The tradition dated all the way back to the colonial era, when bonfires “were lit in New England towns at every available excuse.” Used barrels served as the primary fuel, and the custom was extinguished after World War II, when cardboard and other packaging materials replaced the once-ubiquitous casks.

Kent Nelson, of the Maine Forest Service, points out that burn-permit applications already peak on New Year’s Eve, and the state has no permitting process for recreational bonfires, per se — burn permits are geared toward wood debris, with no limits as to the height or diameter of the fires. What’s more, plenty of states already have holidays not observed outside their borders (Seward’s Day in Alaska, Pioneer Day in Utah), and Maine’s already shown it’s willing to embrace non-federal holidays, observing Patriot’s Day in April. Wouldn’t it be nice to have one we don’t have to share with Massachusetts? — MICHAEL ERARD AND ANDREW GRAHAM

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