In praise of swashbuckling

A couple of years ago when Hurricane Earl appeared to be bearing down on Maine on the eve of Labor Day weekend, those of us charged with organizing the annual Windjammer Festival gathered on the deck of the Camden Chamber office to discuss contingency plans. After consulting the public safety folks and meteorologists it was decided with great reluctance to delay the start by 36 hours.

“But this means the many windjammers won’t be able to attend!” noted a couple of dissenting committee members. “Half the fleet won’t be in the harbor!”

For more than a few of us this meant a diminished festival with less of a draw for locals and tourists alike. We began to bemoan our fate when one wise committee member spoke up.

“I’m from away, and the first time I visited Camden was for Windjammer Weekend in 1997.” He said. “I came on the Sunday and there were but three ships in the harbor, but I was ecstatic! Three classic vessels from the age of sail! Three! Most people never get to see even one! Don’t forget- what seems commonplace to us is remarkable through the eyes of others.”

That comment not only calmed the nerves of that committee, it became an important touchstone for me in considering approaches to economic development. I of course hope for the next “big win”: be it an MBNA, a Boston Financial, or similar. I also work daily to set the conditions for our local champions to both prosper and grow. But in common with others in my field- be they town or city development offices, regional economic development bodies, groups like Opportunity Maine and Midcoast Magnet, and more- I also see a rich seam of future prosperity for our region through the attraction of individuals just as much through the attraction of businesses.

Call these folks what you like- remote entrepreneurs, dispersed workers, telecommuters, or whatever- but there is already an established population of midcoast residents who live locally but who conduct business out of region or out of state. These people are importer-exporters in the best sense, as they export their output and import money to the state of Maine.

In a recent article in Foreign Affairs magazine, Sam Palmisano, the Chairman and CEO of IBM, describes the migration of the traditional corporation toward a new form of organization.  “The globally integrated enterprise is focused on connecting and leveraging various sources of production and value creation regardless of the physical location of these resources.”

Remote entrepreneurs in the Knox-Waldo region know this better than most. Strong, healthy and welcoming communities, a stunning environment with diverse recreational opportunities, world class cultural amenities, high-quality schools, and many other advantages provide the region’s residents an unparalleled quality of life.

As Yellow Light Breen, Senior Vice President of Bangor Savings Bank, said recently, “We live in a high-cost state in a high-cost region in a high cost country.  We have to be able to compete on something other than cost if we are to achieve success.”

There are numerous factors outside of our control that affect economic development in our region. However, there are also assets that we may not have recognized, let alone exploited to their fullest potential for attracting remote entrepreneurs and the economic, civic and cultural activity they bring.

Identifying and bringing attention to this sector and what they bring to the region could enlighten economic development efforts to support their entrepreneurial spirit and attract others like them.

There is already strong work being undertaken in this effort but more can be done. In this modern, devolved world the midcoast needs to recall the swashbuckling spirit that saw our ships, captains, and crews cross the world’s oceans in pursuit of trade and bring the attendant riches back to Maine. Let’s work to support the quality of life and quality of place that will attract these modern day entrepreneurs and let’s always remember commonplace things we take for granted add up to world-beating beauty in the eyes of others.