Freezing rain was falling in Augusta as I grabbed my box lunch and boarded a bus, bound for three days in Central and Western Maine. I wasn’t alone: sixty or so of my fellow Maine Legislators had also signed up for the January, 9 to 11 tour, including three Representatives from our own “neck of the woods” – Stanley Paige Zeigler of Montville (District 96); Ann Matlack of St. George (District 92); and Bill Pluecker of Warren (District 95).
Organized by the Maine Development Foundation, the trip’s ambitious goals were to help us to understand the culture and economic attributes of the region, appreciate the challenges specific to rural areas of Maine, explore the organizations and practices contributing to the quality of life in each region, and learn how the University of Maine system and other organizations are contributing to key accomplishments.
Along the way we’d work on a fifth goal: get to know each other, not simply as people occupying specific seats in our respective chambers, but as colleagues and friends.
Our first day was spent exploring Lewiston and Auburn, where we visited Tree Street Youth Center, the historic Bates Mill and Baxter Brewing Co.,and Central Maine Community College. I haven’t been to Lewiston since my nearly 29-year-old son played middle school hockey, so it was inspiring to see the work being done to make both Lewiston and Auburn vibrant, healthy cities, and to learn how our community college system is working to help solve Maine’s workforce challenges.
Day two found us sorting boxes and cans while learning about food insecurity at Good Shepherd Food Bank, followed by a tour of the Poland Spring Bottling Plant, and then rolling on to Farmington, where we visited Franklin Memorial Hospital and discussed the challenges and opportunities of rural healthcare.
After a visit to nearby Titcomb Mountain, where we explored Maine’s outdoor recreation economy and took a lovely snowshoe, we headed to the University of Maine Farmington, touring the campus and early childhood center. Dinner included a surprise guest: Farmington’s own Governor Janet Mills.
Our final day took us to Farmington’s Foster Career and Technical Education Center, where area high school students learn and work in an amazing array of fields, from robotics to plumbing to the culinary arts.
A walking tour of Skowhegan included that city’s ambitious plans for a whitewater river park, as well as a tour of Maine Grains, a grist mill; and then an exploration of the pulp and papermaking industries, including a journey in and around the giant Sappi Mill.
"The trip was a wonderful chance to get out and see the things that drive us forward, and the amazing things we are building together,” said Rep. Bill Pluecker in a recent email. “As legislators we represent the whole state, not just our districts, and the Maine Development Foundation gave us a great chance to expand our vision of who we are as a state."
Rep. Ann Matlack said that the tour provided her with “opportunities to learn about what other folks around Maine have accomplished, the obstacles they overcame, and the problems they still face.”
I returned to the coast encouraged and energized. The trip proved that as Mainers we can create so much when given resources and inspiration. I’m grateful for the chance to have made meaningful connections with so many hardworking, visionary people – not just the leaders of our tours and talks, but also my fellow Legislators, hailing from all parties and parts of our state, joking, chatting, and eating lunch alongside me on the bus.