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Bangor Daily News, July 14, 2007

John Fitzsimmons: Can rural Maine prosper economically?

Like thousands of others, I'm looking forward to visiting some of the most beautiful places in Maine this summer and fall. But although I plan to put hundreds of miles on my car and make at least 16 stops, many of the places I’m going are less well known to tourists than they should be.

My intent is to visit rural areas of the state that are working hard to rebuild their economies in the aftermath of steady — sometimes devastating — job losses in traditional manufacturing and natural resource-based industries. I plan to meet with local business and community leaders in these areas to discuss how Maine's community colleges can support their efforts to strengthen rural Maine and preserve a way of life that represents the very heart of our state.

Rural life in Maine has always had its unique challenges, but recent, dramatic changes in Maine's economy mean that the challenges have become even more daunting.

Today, more than a half-million Maine people live in rural Maine, about 42 percent of the state's population. And an estimated 12.2 percent of rural Maine households live below the poverty line. In fact, household poverty in Washington County is 2.5 times greater than in Cumberland County, and per capita income is 41 percent lower. Most disturbing of all, between 2000 and 2005, Maine saw the largest percentage increase in rural child poverty of any state in the nation. According to 2005 U.S. Census data, 22.4 percent of rural Maine children under 18 live in poverty.

The economic gap between our urban and rural communities is significant and troubling and — without focused intervention — will continue to grow.

Not surprisingly, this economic gap is matched by a growing educational divide. When the state's economy was fueled by its natural resources, Maine people could often find solid work in our paper and textile mills, in the woods, or on the water. Hard work, common sense and dedication to a task were often the keys to success. But times have changed, and a college education is increasing critical to individual prosperity. It is no accident that the Maine counties with the lowest percentage of adults holding a college degree are also those with the highest poverty rates.

Can Maine stem the rural slide? And if education is key to that effort, what role can and should Maine's community colleges play in helping to sustain and strengthen rural Maine?

Those are questions I plan to examine over the next several months, as I meet with local community and business leaders to hear about the challenges their areas face and to talk with them about how our community colleges can play an even more direct role in restoring vitality and prosperity to rural Maine.

In many ways, Maine's community colleges are uniquely designed to help address some of the major workforce challenges confronting rural parts of our state. Our seven colleges and their nine off-campus centers are located within 25 miles of 92 percent of Maine’s population. They offer over 300 affordable programs of study, the vast majority of them tied directly to the growth areas of Maine’s economy: health care, business, construction, tourism, precision manufacturing. The list goes on.

Our unique mission — to create a skilled workforce that can adapt to the changing needs of the Maine economy — means that we design our credit and noncredit programs to be nimble and responsive to regional economic needs and opportunities.

Although I don't know exactly where our conversations this summer and fall will ultimately lead, I am confident that Maine’s community colleges — working in partnership with businesses and communities — can help strengthen and sustain rural Maine.

I expect that some of the solutions we will discuss will prove too expensive, given the fiscal constraints under which our colleges operate. Delivering services to rural parts of the state — and to small cohorts of students — can be extremely expensive.

But I believe creative, cost-effective ways exist to build on rural Maine's many assets, chief among them the work ethic of its people. Some of these approaches may involve new and innovative partnerships with small businesses, firms that employ nearly two-thirds of Maine’s private sector workforce and that often struggle to find the skilled workers or training programs they need to meet the demands of their workplaces.

We might also focus initiatives on key industries that have the potential to serve as economic engines for rural parts of the state.

Whatever the outcome of these discussions, I believe our community colleges must do all that they can to help rural parts of Maine achieve the same economic stability enjoyed by other parts of the state.

While tourists swarm to the southern and central coast and to the lakes and mountains of western Maine, I’ll be traveling to some other beautiful parts of Maine that we simply cannot afford to overlook if we are to ensure long-term prosperity for our state and all of our citizens.

John Fitzsimmons is president of the Maine Community College System.