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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Maine on the Move

Air Date: Week of

Commentator Linda Tatelbaum laments the loss of identity and community as the economic boom comes to the Maine coast.


CURWOOD: Down east Maine there are still plenty of small hamlets where life is slow and unique. But like the rest of the nation, Maine is changing, too, and long-time Maine transplant Linda Tatelbaum isn't so sure that's a good thing.

TATELBAUM: Pity the little city of Rockland, Maine, built on the edge of Penobscot Bay. Fishing town, county seat, commercial center. Rockland was never home to wealthy summer people like Camden up the road. The local saying goes, "Camden by the sea, Rockland by the smell." Today it's not the smell of fish but the smell of money that flavors Rockland.

Like the rest of Maine, Rockland used to be peopled by independent cusses who'd rather be poor than dance to a distant drummer. When my husband and I moved here in the 70s, we embraced a community that affirmed the small, the slow, the self-reliant. When we did shop it was in downtown Rockland for hardware or lumber or clothes. We needed the town and it needed us, and we were in it together, for life.

Two decades later, many local businesses are gone. Instead, we have a strip of McDonald's, Pizza Hut, a Wal-Mart. Main Street is said to have survived nicely. Its brick storefronts now house art galleries and upscale restaurants. But Rockland's future no longer depends so much on residents as on visitors and investors.

The downtown renaissance, as it's called, is dominated by the Farnsworth Art Museum, attracting tourists in droves. And the museum is lavishly funded by a corporate newcomer, credit card giant MBNA. It's a quandary. Delaware-based MBNA has proven itself the quintessential good corporate neighbor since coming to midcoast Maine in 1992. Their telemarketing centers have brought thousands of jobs and civic investments to Rockland, Belfast, and Camden. All three coastal towns now sparkle with period streetlamps, rolling lawns, stone walls. But MBNA's generosity erodes a community where everyone was in it together. Bake sales, raffles, scrimping and saving, are things of the past now that MBNA's grants are available for schools, libraries, and ball fields.

And like it or not, MBNA soon will be everyone's neighbor, as the corporation buys up property all over the area. Our clapboard community halls and modest homes are no match for their office parks and gated executive retreats. The increased tax base and charitable donations are attractive, but the fate of our little town is now in the hands of a global corporation.

Maine is on the move, Governor Angus King likes to say. And the current boom has brought us a share of America's prosperity. But where are we going, and who gets to decide? And now that the smell of money fills the air here, will we still be in it together?

CURWOOD: Linda Tatelbaum teaches English at Colby College. Her new book is Writer on the Rocks: Moving the Impossible.



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