Realities can change dramatically. My parents sent me to camp in Maine when I was young. They loved Maine and wanted to settle here after World War II, but professional jobs were scarce and they settled in Upstate New York instead. When, in the early 1970s, I graduated from college I moved to western Maine and taught school.
Maine’s outdoors and Maine people are unmatched, but early on I was counseled that good times in Maine are fleeting. It seemed that Maine would always struggle to keep up with the nation in growth.
In 1982 I joined a company called Kennebec Tool & Die, now Kennebec Technologies, and moved with my family to this area in 1984 when I became owner of the company.
Things were happening in Augusta, but it wasn’t clear if each project was one off or part of a trend. The mills were closing and the city was dominated by state government. In the mid 1960s a group of city leaders — bank presidents, lawyers, an aggressive city manager and local contractors — started to look for ways to keep the mill jobs as long as possible and bring in new economic drivers. The cornerstone of these efforts was the creation of the University of Maine at Augusta. This was followed by the building of the Civic Center and bringing Digital Equipment to the area.
The Augusta Board of Trade was created to facilitate these projects. Leaders in city government, in the business community and in the nonprofit sector began to coalesce. They didn’t accept the status quo and they stuck with projects through to completion.
And so since the early 1980s we have seen a new City Hall built along the river; a new regional commercial center at the Mall at Augusta; a stunning third bridge over the Kennebec; a new Cony High School, with a million dollars raised in the community for improvements in a 30-day period; a new MaineGeneral hospital and cancer center; a beautiful and expanded Lithgow Library; a new county courthouse; a new YMCA along a new Rail Trail on the River; new housing at the old Cony High, Fieldstone development and more.
As this is written, a new Humane Society facility, expanded Children’s Center, The Colonial Theatre restoration and new police station are in progress.
This success has been from the bottom up. Every project faced skeptics, but a culture of competence and generosity has taken hold. Fundraising goals have been repeatedly exceeded and a never say never attitude has developed. Augusta is a model for what committed communities can accomplish. The characteristics of this civic culture include:
- Consistent good government over the long haul;
- Commitment to transparency, public engagement, and consensus, on the part of public and private sectors;
- Non-Partisan City Government where people work together for the common good regardless of party, and “pernicious partisans” are not tolerated;
- A lack of drama and a commitment to hard work;
- A default setting around public projects — together we’ll figure it out.
Maine and Augusta have come far but it didn’t just happen. The city of Augusta is now a leader in Maine, and a center of business, health care, education, and government activity.
It is a also a great place to do business. My company, Kennebec Technologies, is now an employee-owned business. All 10 of our most senior employees and most of our employees were born, raised and educated within 20 miles of Augusta. This area and its schools continue to graduate young men and women who have the traditional Maine work ethic and talent. We compete in the global aerospace industry and we will match what we do and how we do it with anyone in the world.
Moving forward there is much opportunity, but nothing can be taken for granted, especially the things we value most. We have clean air, clean water, safe neighborhoods, and a positive civic culture. The base is strong but we must continue to invest — in new renewable of energy, more culture and artistic life, in the downtown and our schools.
Perhaps most of all though we need to keep Augusta livable and create a consensus about dramatically increasing affordable housing at all levels. This is the only way to bring everyone along, including new neighbors from away and far away. Prosperity and quality of life require teamwork and investment.
Over 50 years, successive generations of citizens have committed to keeping hope alive. Today we can truly say that Augusta represents to triumph of hope and perseverance.
Charles “Wick” Johnson is chairman of the board of Kennebec Technologies. This excerpt comes from remarks he made upon winning the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce.