Are northern New England states losing their brightest to the Sun Belt?


John was “a good New England boy,” as my mother said, and I met him a few years back while pumping gas in Cocoa Beach, Fla. This was just a several miles south of Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center, about 40 minutes east of Orlando, and a spit north of Patrick Air Force Base.

OK, OK: not fair, you’ll say.

In that particular Bermuda Triangle of robust business enterprise, hi-tech industry, and zero state income tax, he could be one of thousands in terms of his success story.

I tell of the circumstances that brought John to Florida – a place he said is great for a vacation, but too hot for his liking full-time – via his New England roots, in my weekly Portland Sun column, “Brain drain sighting in Cocoa Beach.”

Admittedly, John’s story is not part of any peer-reviewed study my fellow blogger and UMaine political scientist extraordinaire Dr. Amy Fried might have culled from painstaking interviews in the pursuit of scholarly research.

Still, John’s destiny, while anecdotal in my column, nevertheless is one of several other identical (yet unscientific) stories I have heard first hand from young, educated, northern new Englanders who have flown the coop for warmer climes, many in the Sun Belt.

It’s not that there’s some mass exodus of college grads from Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire; regionalism remains alive and well in the U.S.. My brief research on the subject shows that a solid majority of college grads stay within a 150 mile radius of home.

But if you went to school at Florida State, then that makes sense given John’s excellent prospects, salary, and career progression. If you went to school in Orono, Durham, N.H., or Burlington, Vt., that is less likely the case. In those latter scenarios, staying close to home means you are probably less better off than you might be, say, in Chapel Hill, N.C. or Austin, Texas.

And there are only so many jobs in Boston, or just outside our reach, in New York City (full disclosure: place of my birth).

The answers from government won’t help much, either. Republicans will claim, predictably, that onerous economic regulations, such as Vermont’s school funding laws, which have caused skyrocketing property taxes, have soured the cost of living, and therefore job markets. For their part, Democrats will probably sing their litany that state governments, LePage administration included, have not gone far enough to legislate job markets out of their doldrums.

There’s probably truth in both those claims, but what northern New England can’t escape is that paltry populations – read: tax bases – can do some good but only so much.

Instead: we tout the natural beauty of our surroundings and call it a “lifestyle magnet,” as if the azure of Casco Bay can somehow feed a growing family.

For someone like me who already had had several careers “away” and now has some kind of security, there is no better place. After 18 years up in these parts, I know where I belong.

However, for a young dude and brand new dad like John, it’s a totally different story. He may indeed do well with a hi-tech startup in Portland’s cool, funky, growing and thriving Old Port, but replicating that place all over northern New England, and getting the likes of him to come back, are another story altogether.

What do you think? What can be done, if anything, to give these promising young New Englanders a chance here, close to home? Share your thoughts below.

Because in Florida, John’s little boy has an even money chance of growing up a Yankees fan, of all things.



Telly Halkias

About Telly Halkias

Award-winning freelance journalist from Portland's West End. Writes columns, features, and drama reviews for newspapers in Vermont, where he also owns a home, Massachusetts, New York and Maine.. Former weekend columnist at the now defunct Portland Sun. Longtime adjunct professor of college English/history/humanities. Has lived overseas for 15 years, and all over the U.S. Veteran. Small business owner. Published poet. ATCA drama critic. Loves all things outdoors, and Siberian huskies.