The Bangor success story yet to be written

Downtown Bangor.

Downtown Bangor.

There’s a story still to be written about our Queen City, Bangor. It’s a tale with many characters and plot twists and, despite many challenges, we can make it turn out well.

Luckily, Bangor has excellent public leadership, with a strong city council and an outstanding school department. Less than a year ago, City Councilor Ben Sprague offered a plan for population and economic growth, which recognized that our economy can’t thrive unless our population grows. Other local leaders have great ideas and have contributed to Bangor’s regeneration.

Drawing from and building on those, here are three elements of an agenda for Bangor’s future: immigration, connection and education.

Why immigration?

As state economist Amanda Rector reports, Maine is aging and losing population, slowing economic growth.

Younger people build businesses and nonprofits, furnish homes and bring new children into our schools.

We need immigrants because they tend to be younger and more entrepreneurial. Portland and Lewiston have both benefited from immigrants, even when immigrants weren’t fully welcomed. As former Attorney General James Tierney recently pointed out, while the number of children in K-12 schools declined in Androscoggin County by 15 percent in the last decade, due to Lewiston’s immigrant population, Lewiston saw an increase of 10 percent.

Attracting immigrants to Bangor isn’t a simple matter, but the first step is deciding it’s necessary and making sure that we are a welcoming community to people from other states and nations.

An active welcome has to extend to black, Hispanic and Asian immigrants. Nearly all the population growth in the United States is from nonwhites. Because young people in the country are more diverse than older people, attracting younger folks means drawing in more people of color.

Bangor has few Native Americans and few with African, Hispanic and Asian ancestry. According to Census figures, Bangor is 93.1 percent white, compared to 95.2 percent in Maine (and roughly that in all of Penobscot County), 86.6 percent in Lewiston, and 85 percent in Portland.

Bangor, like the once very white Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area in Minnesota, can diversify. In Minneapolis-St. Paul, their immigrant populations are increasingly part of local communities and institutions.

So, connection has to be a key element of Bangor strategy. One way of connecting is a new organization, Maine Career Connect, that helps newly arrived professionals learn about the area, find a job for their spouse and adjust to a new place.

Even how this group got started shows the importance of connecting businesses and nonprofits to each other. Initial funds came from a federal grant I co-wrote to help the University of Maine attract and keep talented researchers and faculty, but Maine Career Connect’s growth depends on the backing it receives from many employers and business groups. Now is a pilot period when employers in eastern Maine can get free membership.

But it’s not just professionals Bangor needs, but others, including low-income people whose English is not the best but whose desire to succeed is second to none. Bangor must overcome anti-immigrant messages that might keep them away.

We must build connections in many areas. City leaders and organizations can help uninsured people and hospitals by encouraging signups for health insurance during the open enrollment period. Increasing coverage reduces charity care provided by hospitals, maintaining their financial viability while keeping residents healthier.

With institutions of higher education in the area, Bangor needs to build on some wonderful efforts connecting college classes to the city, and create an internship program for college and high school students.

Education is a key part of securing Bangor’s future. With schools recognized for excellence, that quality must continue. Parents settle places where schools are good and these provide ways of building relationships and stimulating new projects. Strong schools help us sustain vital, growing communities.

Children entering these schools need healthy childhoods and should start kindergarten ready to learn. High school graduates deserve guidance about all their career options.

No city is an island. What Bangor can become will be affected by state, national and global trends and policies. Cuts in school and revenue sharing funds promised under state law would undermine the city.

But Bangor has to continue to chart its own future with creativity, hard work, public-private partnerships and resources expended with fiscal responsibility, as it attracts immigrants, builds connections and promotes education.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.