Spotlight on Sustainability: Northern and Down East Maine

The following is based on an interview with Ryan Pelletier, Director of Workforce Development, Northern Maine Development Commission

Faced with economic distress, outmigration, soaring unemployment, and numbers of low-income and underrepresented populations well over the national average, two counties in Northern and Down East Maine began searching for solutions. Aroostook and Washington counties, the two largest and poorest in Maine, recently joined together to form one Economic Development District. Combining eleven groups that represent the population of 104,175, the region was awarded a Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Regional Planning grant through the federal Partnership for Sustainable Communities.

Led by the Northern Maine Development Commission (NMDC), the consortium is working to address the problems beleaguering the region through the creation of the Washington Aroostook Regional Plan for Sustainable Development. “We’re really driving this project from an economic development standpoint,” says Ryan Pelletier, Director of Workforce Development, NMDC. “We’re looking at transportation and housing costs, workforce development, and infrastructure improvements as inter-related components of a healthy community.”

An area rich in natural resources, NMDC and its partners  view this grant as an opportunity to address economic growth as a region while protecting their strong history in the agriculture, forestry, and fishing industries. “We have to keep in mind what makes our region unique and protect that while working to create job and education opportunities and improve the quality of life,” says Pelletier. The consortium views the grant as an opportunity to coordinate regional planning efforts between the counties, engage the community, improve infrastructure, and create a coherent economic development strategy.

Now in its ‘visioning’ phase, the consortium continues to engage disparate segments of the local population, allowing every resident to have a real voice in shaping the community for future generations. “Would we be making progress without the help of the HUD grant? Maybe,” says Pelletier. “But it would have been 10, 15, maybe 20 years. This grant has made it possible in the time span of 2 to 3 years.” For this region of Maine, investment by a federal agency brought the right people to the table, supplying the capital and interest necessary to allow growth to happen much more quickly. It’s becoming clear in Maine, and across the country, that by bringing people together for the right kind of coordination we can create real solutions that protect our natural resources, our communities, and our future.

If your community has received a Partnership for Sustainable Communities grant and you would like to share your success story, contact jholmberg [at] smartgrowthamerica [dot] org.