‘Move home,’ they keep saying

Regular readers of this column may or may not be aware, but I do not live in Maine.

I have certainly not hidden the fact that I live in Washington, D.C., but I rarely mention it because, quite frankly, it’s usually more trouble than it’s worth. The news tends to make many people dismissive of what I have to say, being nothing more than the musings of somebody “from away.”

This week, however, I hope residing elsewhere actually lends more weight to my opinion.

I returned home to Bangor this week to see my father who was recently diagnosed with a possible case of lung cancer. Due to the nature of this visit, I have already seen more friends and family than I usually do, and one message is repeated at virtually every encounter: “You need to move home.”

I miss my family terribly, and living as far away as I do has been very hard. My son has cousins he barely sees. I have lifelong friends who are still here. I miss the quiet roads, houses that have lawns, friendly people and scenic beauty. I miss the local food and spending time in the outdoors. Hell, I even miss the tourist traps.

If there is anyone who should be a poster boy for enthusiastic citizenship of the Pine Tree State, it is me. So why did I move? Why does everyone else leave?

Answering that question, genuinely, is the key to actually reversing the outmigration of young people from Maine, which is the single most important public policy challenge facing the state. Demographic winter is coming.

The most obvious reason many of us leave is the one most ignored by policymakers. I wanted to move because my friends did. There is a basic desire by many of the youngest, smartest kids who grow up in Maine to prove to themselves that they can cut it somewhere bigger and faster.

The areas that Maine has focused its identity on in the past are no longer the attractive career choices young people are making en masse.

Then there is the natural tendency of young people to want to experience more of the world and a need to grow beyond the place where they grew up. The moment I moved away, I was exposed to more cultures and ideas than I could have ever dreamed of, and it was exciting.

Of course then there is entertainment. Like it or not, the young want enjoyable things to do, social options and vitality. They also want to be around other young people.

Moving back to Maine for me would mean leaving the ability to walk from my office to a baseball game or dining at some incredible restaurants. It would also mean leaving an area overflowing with people my age and coming to one much, much older.

It may seem superficial, but those things are exciting for many young people. I’ve taken my 6-year-old son to about 50 baseball games, and that is not something I can say about myself growing up.

Then there’s money. The youthful are at the bottom of the economic ladder everywhere and can simply make more money outside Maine. At the start of one’s career, having a family, car payments, student loans, a mortgage and living expenses mean that earning more money is the difference between making ends meet and going bankrupt.

Young people need good paying, aspirational careers in industries that match their interests. They want a youthful culture. They want a little excitement. If those things are not available, many who would prefer to stay home will leave.

Yet hope for change remains. Boston used to be a dying city, full of aging people, racial strife, dilapidated buildings and a depressed economy. Now it is the New England anchor for so many of the young people who leave Maine.

Even in Bangor, the tired, boring ghost town that I grew up next to is now bustling with activity. Main Street seems alive again, with bars and shops that people actually want to visit. There are outdoor concerts, and businesses are popping up all over the place. There are more young people than I ever remember seeing.

It can be done, with smart policymakers who focus on the right things: an emphasis on targeted economic development and diversification. Creating incubators for in-demand jobs for young people would be a start. Trying to create a few “anchor cities” that attract a youthful culture with both the right jobs and things to do would be another.

Basically, there is a need to craft real incentives that will make kids want to stay in Maine. And this can be done without sacrificing the rural character and quiet personality of Maine.

Had those things been done in the past, there is a very real chance that I never would have left. Develop them now, and Maine is almost guaranteed to get me back.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.