Illustrated map of Maine, by Stellar_Bones
Shutterstock | Stellar_Bones

What Every Would-Be Mainer Must Know

Let’s face it: Maine’s not like anyplace else, and we like it that way. But if you’re considering moving here, it can be an adjustment. We reached out to four smart Mainers whose professional lives revolve around new arrivals, and we asked them: what have you learned that every prospective Mainer needs to hear?

As told to Bridget M. Burns
From our March 2023 issue
Katie Shorey

Katie Shorey

Director of engagement, Live and Work in Maine

Katie Shorey was visiting family in Sweden, in Oxford County, when she saw a TV ad for a start-up conference and decided, on a whim, to volunteer there. “My mom was a nurse. My dad was a forest ranger. I had no concept of the industries in Maine,” she says. Connecting with other attendees changed Shorey’s perspective on what was possible in her home state, spurring her decision to move back. In 2018, she became president of the organization that sponsored the conference, now called Startup Maine, and in 2019, she joined Live and Work in Maine, a nonprofit initiative to match would-be residents to careers in the Pine Tree State. “I’m the poster child,” she says.

I have lived in DC, San Francisco, and Chicago. And something that sticks out for me is that Maine is very relationship-oriented, not transactional. I love that. Anyone will take a coffee meeting with you. It is easy to access leaders all across the state. When you think about building your career or growing your career, people in all different industries want to help you. They’re happy to lend you 15 to 20 minutes of their time.

We recently launched a series called “Welcome Home.” We had 19 networking events across the state, from Machias to Presque Isle to Bridgton and everywhere in between. You could be a longtime Mainer, you could have boomeranged back to Maine, or you could be brand-new to Maine — the idea is to help people find their people because that helps with retention. There are plenty of ways to build your network. Mainers take care of their own, and we also take care of our communities. There is a spot for you, and there are people for you.

There’s still awareness building that needs to be done around the industries in Maine. It’s not just lobstermen, potatoes, and lighthouses. We have a burgeoning tech scene. We have more than 450 life-science companies. And while Maine might be known for its traditional industries of farming, fishing, and forestry, we’ve now seen the intersection of technology in these sectors, which is helping Maine lead the way in sustainability and solving global problems here at home. We are pioneers with things like nanocellulose and aquaculture. They’re using seaweed to sequester CO2 from the atmosphere by putting sequestering kelp on the ocean floor. And we have farm robots! Plus veterinary health, veterinary tech, health-care manufacturing, 3D printing, and rocket companies. You don’t have to just work remotely. We want you to work for a Maine company.

Carmen McPhail

Carmen McPhail

President, Maine Association of REALTORS® 

An associate broker with United Country Lifestyle Properties of Maine, Carmen McPhail has lived in Maine all her life (okay, except for a year of college). Originally from Presque Isle, she now lives in Lincoln and says the best part of being in Maine is the state’s diverse opportunities. An hour north of home, she can climb mountains; two hours east and she’s either on the coast or in Canada. When she wants to go skiing, she heads a couple hours west, and it’s two hours south to take advantage of arts and entertainment in Maine’s bigger cities. “You just need to figure out which part of Maine you want to live in,” she says. “Because you still get to do all the other things.”

The most important thing to know is that Maine is a large state and offers lots of diverse experiences. Do a little research and pick a region or two that fit your wants, needs, and lifestyle before you decide to move here. Being in Aroostook County is way different than being in York County. Being on the coast is way different than being in the mountains. Most people who move to Maine move here for our lifestyle. Figure out where you want to be for your lifestyle. 

Be prepared for our weather. You can have fun in the rain at noon, then it can snow overnight, and that can be eight of the 12 months where I live! Be prepared for our wildlife. If you are in the mountains or outside of the cities, you can run into a moose in the road. Be prepared for navigation. You know that saying, “You can’t get there from here?” Well, you can. But you need to know that we usually measure distances in time instead of in miles. I like to ask buyers when I talk to them for the first time, have you ever been to Maine? Do you know what our weather’s like? Do you understand that there’s no straight road to get from here to there unless you’re on I-95? And even that’s not really straight.

Finally, use a Realtor. We can make a real difference in your home-buying experience. We educate our buyers about the local market conditions, whether there’s a good inventory of for-sale properties, what the housing values are, how to deal with financing, and the long-term advantages of homeownership. We’re specialists in our own markets.

Reza Jalali

Reza Jalali

Executive director, Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center

In the mid-’80s, a diplomat at the U.S. Embassy gave Reza Jalali, then fleeing Iran, a book about the U.S. Jalali saw Maine’s beauty and thought it looked like paradise. “Mind you, all the pictures were taken during the summertime,” he says with a laugh. “To this day, I maintain there should have been a disclosure!” While Jalali’s first February stateside made him question his choice, he came to love Maine, largely, he says, because of the safety and sense of dignity he found here, along with the chance to be himself. Now, Jalali takes pride in helping other new Mainers get acclimated. “Part of what I do every day is to repay that debt,” he says.

When talking to both highly professional immigrants and also those who come as asylum seekers or refugees, my answer remains the same. Maine is safe. Each of us, of course, get to define safety in our own ways, but this is basic safety: a sense of security. Every now and then, an immigrant reminds me that when they watch the local news, there are no reports of shootings in the first four or five highlights. That reinforces my sense that we live in a magical place. The same thing is true with the displaced people of the world. In their case, safety is actually more important than food. Imagine you are here from Angola or El Salvador, and you’re fleeing gang violence and political turmoil. Many Mainers continue to be confused why so many asylum seekers want to come to Maine. Safety and to really feel secure. 

The second is schools. I worked for the University of Southern Maine for 19 years, and I’ve traveled a lot. Our school system is amazing. We don’t have high schools across the state with 4,000 or 5,000 students. We don’t have schools where they check you for guns and things like that. And that’s the norm in many places. We have a really good education system in terms of teachers who care and communities that really care, meaning people show up at meetings. So schooling, to me, is a huge attraction.

And then we come to the natural beauty. Many native-born Mainers assume that immigrants don’t care about natural beauty. That is inaccurate. There are many immigrants who are in Maine because of its natural beauty. Maine has gorgeous lakes, the clean ocean, not-so-crowded beaches, and fantastic hiking and skiing opportunities. And it’s affordable to enjoy the beauty. Living in a community like Portland, where it is 15 minutes of driving time to the beach or 20 minutes to a place you can hike? That is unusual. In other states, you need a lot of money to live close to a gorgeous place. We don’t have to drive two hours to make it to a place to enjoy the day. 

Rhiannon Hampson

Rhiannon Hampson

Maine state director, USDA Rural Development

By age 17, Rhiannon Hampson, a native of rural down east Maine, was eager to explore “the big city.” She bought a one-way bus ticket to Seattle and, after living there for a bit, traveled extensively, spending time in a few other states. But by her mid-20s, she realized there was no place like home. Now, in her role at USDA Rural Development, Hampson is able to share her love of the state with potential new Mainers. Sometimes she quotes an Emily Dickinson poem she grew up hearing from her mother, an English professor. “I see New Englandly,” Hampson says. “This is home.”

I tell people all the time, Maine needs warm bodies. We have 1.3 million people, and we enjoy it — it’s lovely that we have more trees than people — but we’re aging. I want to dispel the myth that, as Mainers, we’re like, “You’re from away? We don’t want you.” That’s not true. I want people to come here. And I want people to want to be here. This is not a place that you end up in by default. You don’t accidentally find yourself moving toward the Canadian border and the Atlantic Ocean. People are purposeful when they come here. As an agency, we are trying to make sure that people feel welcome. 

Two is that we are more sophisticated than people might imagine. There are a lot of tropes about Maine in the media. And I think, as Mainers, we tend to subscribe to those tropes. But the fact is, we are an innovative space. And we have the luxury, honestly, because we have a small population, to have a really robust support system for that innovation. I don’t want people to think that if they have some kind of high skill level that they wouldn’t belong here or that they wouldn’t find support for their work here. At the same time, we still maintain that rural culture. You can still find a bean supper and have those kinds of small community connections that are very place based.

Sometimes when people think about moving to Maine, they think, “I need quality health care, I need educational resources, or I need a good school for my kids, so I’m going to stay south of Lewiston–Auburn.” I really want people to know that a whole of Maine exists north of Lewiston–Auburn. We have pockets of Hancock and Washington and Aroostook and Piscataquis counties that are vibrant. Moving to Maine is an adventure. You’re coming to the easternmost point of the United States! We’re not Canada, but we can see it from here. We have this kind of frontier feeling about ourselves. I want people to think of that as a chance to bring their skills. Rural spaces are not to be feared. That’s a real opportunity for people.

April 2024, Down East Magazine

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