In May, as Rockland city councilors were deliberating over the 2020 fiscal year city budget, I wrote to ask them, “I’m curious why Rockland Main Street, Inc. (RMS) was once again given $30,000 out of our local budget. What specifically do you appreciate about the organization that you think can’t be done by a city entity, by employees at the city, and what does RMS specifically do to deserve so much out of our very small budget for local projects? How do you choose these priorities? In contrast, I understand that the local bus, which is so necessary for this area, got nothing from us.”

The response? Nothing. I didn’t hear back from a single councilor.

This isn’t surprising; in the last two years or so, I’ve rarely gotten a reply (except from my dad, who is a councilor). At first I took it personally, but I’ve since learned that many locals aren’t getting responses. We feel frustrated, disempowered; we respond by pulling back. We wonder if there are certain local “powerbrokers” who always get a reply.

Councilors are busy and make a financial pittance, but something has to be done about this. Surely Council can find a way to help residents feel listened to while not feeling overwhelmed. Responsiveness should be a requirement.

Back to my unanswered email to councilors: Why, year after year, are they backing RMS with $30,000 of our taxpayer money? Sometimes RMS even gets more than any other local group — including groups that provide food, health care, or substance abuse disorder support. Yes, RMS does some good stuff in Rockland (the Summer Solstice Celebration!), but it also frequently represents a regressive approach that seems to privilege business revenue over the livelihood of workers and the planet.

While RMS may not take “official positions” on local governmental matters, it gives off clues that indicate its stances and priorities. In Spring 2018, when Council was considering a paper bag fee (which would have made the single-use plastic bag ban most environmentally effective), RMS Executive Director Gordon Page spoke out, appearing to give particular credence to the small handful of downtown business owners who questioned the fee. In fact, many more downtown businesses and organizations signed a letter in support of the fee, compared to those who were against it. Shortly thereafter, RMS appeared to take an interest in opposing medical marijuana facilities in downtown. RMS also appears to champion cruise ships in Rockland, with Page warmly greeting their arrivals in person. RMS has even blocked select Rockland residents from its Facebook page, most likely because these locals had expressed friendly critiques of RMS’s seeming embrace of cruise ships. In effect, RMS often functions like a chamber of commerce for Main Street, using our own taxpayer money to lobby against progressive efforts.

Who is RMS for? RMS is under the umbrella of the statewide group Main Street Maine, which is under the umbrella of national group Main Street America. Much of their focus is on snaring tourists. The Main Street Maine website features the tourist-luring phrases “Visit Maine!” “Explore!” “Discover!” RMS has recently branded Rockland (and hence, Rocklanders) with the make-me-barf slogan “Salty Sophistication!™” Though they claim to be about supporting “downtown revitalization,” in searching on their websites, I found zero hits for “living wage” — or even minimum wage — written by the local and statewide organizations. Improving workers’ livelihoods seems to be of little concern. And when RMS claims to have a “partnership” with businesses, it means business owners, not the workers who make those businesses thrive.

As RMS searches for a new executive director, it’s a chance for the organization to reckon with its role in the community. What could RMS do? It could campaign to ensure that the people who work to make downtown businesses run are paid a living wage, have health care, paid time off, and safe, affordable, year-round housing. It could support harm reduction practices and anti-gentrification policies. It could work on increasing diversity, wheelchair and pedestrian accessibility, and trans-inclusive bathrooms. It could focus on energy savings and renewable resources, helping Rockland with our energy goals. It could plan for climate crisis impacts on Main Street, anticipating how it will alter our future. It could advocate at the state level for fair school funding, sales tax sharing, and local option taxes, which could be put into affordable housing landbanks. It could focus more on those who live and work here, rather than spending so much effort trying to sell Rockland as a tantalizing tourist trap.

Even so, I would still question its permanent status on the city’s payroll.

P.S. Rockland City Council is holding its first goal-setting meeting in years on Monday, December 16, at 5:30 p.m. in City Hall. Bring your Rockland desires, ideas, and thoughts for public comment.