The more I’ve researched the Katadhin region national park debate, the more I’ve come to terms with a glaring reality check: Over-reliance on tourism in Maine in the wake of the manufacturing decline may not be such a good thing.
Don’t get me wrong — we can and should rely on tourism. The 2014 fact sheet at visitmaine.com reports that tourism supported 94,118 jobs in Maine (about 14 percent) and brought in an estimated $533,168,068 in taxes. Both figures were up from the year before, which were up from the year before that.
Tourism remains the bright spot in an otherwise dismal economy to such an extent that we should probably be greeting visitors with a Maine version of hula dancers and leis. Maybe dancing lobstermen could hand out lobster bibs. There’s room in the tourism market for Maine to increase its share, so continued investment in marketing our beautiful state is money well spent.
But how much should we depend on tourism? The same years that tourism revenues and jobs have been creeping up, the remainder of Maine’s economy and wages have both stagnated. Business Insider reported that wages in Maine fell by 3 percent from 2012 to 2013, contributing to the state being ranked 47th of the 50 states in economic recovery from the recession. Among the reasons Colorado was listed as No. 1 is its diversified economy.
Poverty rates also seem untouched by the Midas of tourism. Eighteen percent of Maine children lived in poverty in 2010 and in 2013. And 26,609 families participated in TANF in 2013, virtually unchanged from the 26,606 families in 2010. The number of Mainers receiving SNAP benefits crept up from 229,731 in 2010 to 230,536 in 2014.
All the figures got me to thinking about times when I have been a tourist.
Like one summer when I was nine, my family spent a few weeks with relatives in San Antonio, Texas. We made a day trip to do tourist-type stuff in Mexico. I am still haunted by the stark contrast I saw between the poverty of the average Mexican and the far more luxurious accommodations created for and provided to tourists: the poor woman with dirty children at her knee, hawking undervalued jewelry and weaves within feet of the fancy restaurant at which we ate.
The woman in well-kept rags, our waiter in a tuxedo and bow-tie.
It was the same thing over a decade later when I had the good fortune to visit Nassau Bahamas. My friend and I had modest accommodations — downright shabby if compared with Paradise Island — but downright decadent if compared with what we found when we walked a couple miles inland in search of real island life. We found real island poverty.
Maine is nowhere near as bad, but I worry that we are headed in that direction. When I went to Nassau, it was either 1989 or 1990. I was working as a bartender with only a high school diploma. Back then manufacturing was still a major player in the Maine economy. Employers knew the average employee could walk into any manufacturing job and garner a union wage that provided a decent lifestyle.
The availability of high-wage, unionized manufacturing jobs gave non-manufacturing workers more value. I’m not an economist, but I think the absence of manufacturing has depreciated that value. With the loss of manufacturing jobs came a decrease in union membership — from 24 percent of workers in Maine in 1983 to 12.5 percent in 2014.
As Lawrence Mishel wrote in a 2012 article for the Economic Policy Institute, the “falling rate of unionization has lowered wages, not only because some workers no longer receive the higher union wage but also because there is less pressure on nonunion employers to raise wages.”
A 2011 article in The Atlantic looks at the correlation between high rates of union membership and the success of states’ economies. The author cautions that correlation is not necessarily causation but goes on to say:
“While it is not surprising that unionization levels are correlated with higher hourly wages (.48), they are also correlated with higher incomes across the board — and the correlation between union membership and medium income is substantial (.45).”
Further, the author correlates high unionization with “the percentage of the workforce in artistic and culturally creative jobs.”
“Creative industries” is one of the many listed as part of Colorado’s diversified economy.
As a bartender in 1989-90, I earned $5.50 an hour, which I believe was a dollar an hour over minimum at the time, plus tips. Depending on the shift, I could earn $13+ an hour — $23.65 in today’s dollars. When I became pregnant with my oldest son, I returned to college, thinking a degree was the best way to secure a future for my family.
Twenty years later, when I left my last traditional professional position, I was salaried at $16.87 an hour with a BA in English and over 15 years years of professional experience. I wondered why I ever stepped out from behind a bar.
Tourism does provide ample hospitality jobs, including bartending, however it is only one facet of the more diversified economy Maine needs to be growing, and not all hospitality jobs are as lucrative as bartending can be. Tourism alone will not replace the high-wage union jobs that correlate with higher median incomes and creative economies. Increased tourism did not grow exports, which the Business Insider article reported dropped 13.1 percent in Maine between 2012 and 2013.
The Maine economy needs more than just more tourists: more infrastructure to attract young educated citizens to more geographically challenged regions, more vibrant industries and markets, more small businesses, and more public and private leadership coming together to figure out how to make it all happen.
In an earlier post about the debate, I hypothetically posited the idea of a northern Maine revitalization dream team.
I referred to the vast available knowledge base among those opposing the national park proposal, including David Trahan of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and Andrew Young of Preserve Maine Traditions. After my communications with these gentlemen and others — I haven’t yet touched on the knowledgeable, savvy ladies up there — I was saddened by the idea that this debate seems to be keeping good people from coming together to work comprehensively on behalf of rural Maine.
After talking to economist Charles Colgan, and David Farmer, a spokesperson for Elliotsville Plantation, I still kind of like my dream team idea. They both speak compellingly about the benefits of the proposed park and its potential as an impetus for some peripheral economic and infrastructure development.
Though a bit more removed from the day to day of the average citizen up there than Trahan and Young, Colgan and Farmer are equally passionate about their desire to see Maine’s economy grow.
People may argue it’s too late to go back to the drawing board, but by any measure, even if the national park goes forward, any economic impetus or infrastructure benefits are still years and years away. And this debate has already waged on for years. Whether or not there’s a park, the need to revitalize the region is reaching a crisis level now as town populations deplete.
People up there and all over rural and even central Maine need hope — longterm and short-term — and our current political climate isn’t functional enough to provide it. The needed leadership and collective vision has to come from somewhere — perhaps a privately funded dream team would work. The talent is there. All that’s needed are resources and unity.