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Maine's split personality

Page 2 of 3 -- ''The population is spread the way it is," said Representative John Brautigam, a Kentucky native who lives in Falmouth, a bedroom community of Portland. ''I would like to see economic development throughout the state and I believe as a representative, it is my obligation to make laws for the state as a whole."

The divide between north and south, rural and urban, is not unique to Maine. Minnesota and New York, among others, have experienced similar schisms as mechanization and cheaper foreign labor have weakened their rural industries, economists say.

''This is an evolving tension," said Charlie Colgan, a public policy professor at the University of Southern Maine. ''It is part of the transformation from industrial to post-industrial, which works to the advantage of the urban areas."

In Maine, the division is particularly stark. There is little buffer between the forested expanse of northern Maine and the galloping development of southern and coastal Maine. The divide shows no signs of narrowing.

Between 1990 and 2000, the population of Maine grew by 35,000 people to 1.28 million, according the state planning office. But in the five northernmost counties -- Somerset, Penobscot, Piscataquis, Washington, and Aroostook -- the population decreased by 18,000. Annual median household income in these counties was about $8,000 less than in the rest of the state, according to census figures.

Maine's political leaders have sought for decades to redress the disparity. Former governor Angus King explored the construction of an east-west highway in the region, but its cost proved prohibitive. Governor John Baldacci has offered incentives to businesses to relocate to distressed areas. But businesses have been reluctant to move north to an area where a dwindling population means a diminished pool of workers.

''Every governor has made it a major program to improve the economic development of northern Maine," said Galen Rose, the acting state economist. ''I despair of ever finding anything that will bring the north economic equivalence with that of south . . . What's caused the situation are things much bigger than us. Worldwide changes, technological changes. So finding solutions is extremely difficult."

One group that says it has an answer is RESTORE: The North Woods. The conservation organization, based in Concord, Mass., has been pushing for the creation of a national park that would cover 3.2 million acres across a western swath of northern Maine, an area larger than Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks combined.

The group, whose advisory board includes Hollywood stars Harrison Ford, Morgan Freeman, Holly Hunter, and Robert Redford, argues that the park would bring renewed economic vitality to northern Maine. They point to a study, commissioned by RESTORE and conducted by Thomas Power, chairman of the University of Montana economics department, which found that the park would create about 6,000 new jobs. Citing the experience of communities near existing national parks, such as Maine's Acadia National Park, the study suggests that the area's average income would probably increase.   Continued...

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