I doubt many Farmington folks had a billion dollars invested with Bernie Madoff, and few have got millions in any market. High finance around here is a house with fresh paint and a car less than five years old, maybe a paved driveway. Franklin Savings, our strongly rated local bank, doesn’t (so far as I know) sell the mortgages it underwrites and, at least in the banking part of its business, sticks to the ethics that informed the Depression-era banking laws so blithely repealed by the trickle-downers and the markets-are-self-correcting Milton Friedmanites of the outgoing and previous administrations. Franklin Savings is in good health, having loaned as if its life depended it. Which means it’s still possible to get a loan from them. Not that houses are selling in Franklin County, old or new.
Our friend Rick, a successful carpenter, is down to odd jobs. But he’s still smiling, catching up on his music and doing volunteer work (like mending frozen pipes for older folks who’ve run through the month’s Social Security check). Our friend the upholsterer says business isn’t terrible — that’s too generous an assessment — business is nonexistent. No one’s redecorating, and no one’s furnishing a new house, everyone’s going to live with that worn chair a couple more years. But thanks to Franklin Savings he was easily able to mortgage his house and shop — he’d paid them off years before — essentially buying the property from himself, since there were no other takers in the current market, and he’d have no place to live or work if he did sell.
When lending on the regional and national scale freezes up, big building projects freeze, too. Bonds can’t be floated right now, and many issues have been postponed or rescinded. The new Mallet Elementary School building, on track till July, is now on hold; another desperately needed project, the Mt. Blue High School upgrade, is in question as well. Mallet’s temporary classrooms have been there so long they’ve grown moss; the Mt. Blue building and grounds are lovingly tended, but worn down and inadequate, even obsolete in many ways, with minor problems like heaved or unpaved parking lots added to major problems like cracks in the cinder-block walls and recurrent roof leaks. Other capital projects in town are unlikely to go forward as well, at least not on schedule. Funds for basic town services are in question, as well, the coffers being affected by falling property values. Funds for state services are shrinking, as well: lower income-tax proceeds as we all start earning less.
Tourist traffic in our neck of the woods is down, both summer and winter, and that takes a certain percentage off the top of all our businesses — especially retail, but services as well, from hairdressing to hospital. Our plumber friend Jonah has no new work, but has been keeping busy shutting down heating and water systems in camps and condos people from elsewhere have decided not to visit this year.
The rest of us have to stay, and we have to keep things warm — kind of a priority. It’s wonderful that heating oil prices have fallen so dramatically over the last couple of months — but that doesn’t help all the homeowners and businesses and churches who signed preorder contracts when the stuff was $4.50 a gallon last summer.
We heat primarily with wood, but when oil prices are high, fire wood prices are high. The stuff is cut and moved and split and trucked using petroleum fuels all the way. My regular guy narrowed his delivery radius this year — his big diesel dump truck, two-cord load, gets about five miles per gallon. At delivery time, back in June, that meant nearly a dollar a mile! And I was twenty miles from his yard: the usual four cords would have cost him eighty dollars extra just for the drive. The price of a cord of firewood—cut, split, delivered—was over two hundred dollars for a while there, but slipped back down as the price of petroleum failed, and may continue to sink. But is that good news for woodcutters?
Still, Farmington’s not whining, and not surprised — everyone here knew we were in trouble over a year ago. First the RVs at the end of driveways, then the power boats, then the fancier cars, then the crummy cars, then the smaller stuff — air conditioners, lawn tractors, motorcycles, aquariums: all for sale. Now it’s down to junk: piles of tires, old filing cabinets, formerly colorful kids’ playground stuff, anything that isn’t essential to just simply staying alive, anything even vaguely useful, most still sitting there with moldering FOR SALE BY OWNER signs. (We’ll know we’re really in trouble when FOR SALE BY SOMEONE OTHER THAN OWNER signs start appearing on everything.)
Even the most basic ways of making money have suffered. Those young men who go around collecting scrap metal were doing well till mid-summer, when the recycling and scrap metal market crashed, for example. And the phalanx of folks who clean houses, double whammy: the short-term rental market flattened out at the same time many people were trimming costs by doing their own cleaning. That goes for yard work, too, and babysitting and dog grooming and small-engine repair and auto repair and driveway plowing and, well, pretty much you name it, all the ways people make a little extra cash in the background economy that is often estimated to be the bigger part of our Franklin County financial picture.
Elysia and I went Christmas shopping together the Tuesday before the holiday, a snowy, cold, cheerful, wonderful December afternoon. It was a little too easy to park downtown, plenty of empty parking spaces, but people were out and about, many of them carrying packages. Elysia’s well known around Farmington (as is any eight-year-old Farmingtonian), and chatted with each of the shopkeepers we visited, telling them in fairly exhaustive detail about her wish list (already duly emailed to Santa), and all the fun she’d been having in the snow, also the Holiday dance party she’d just hosted at our house — twelve little girls and two boys, wild fun, five hours of clogging music and the Nutcracker and then, screaming and all, the Beatles.
Everywhere we went I asked, How’s business? Normally, that gets you a one-word answer, at most a sentence, but in this season, I was getting whole paragraphs, and here and there an essay. Sue at Liquid Sunshine said business was definitely off, but not terrible — she thought people were making a point of shopping in Farmington, trying to help the local economy — “so sweet.”
Maybe also saving gas, but I didn’t add that thought to the discussion, since the idea of human kindness was so much nicer to contemplate.
The thrift shops both looked booming — but both have seen their upticks in sales accompanied by corresponding downturns in donations, unsustainable. Our local Reny’s (the Maine-based, bargain-basement department-store chain), looked to be doing well, too: plenty of people seeking good deals. When I commented on how busy it looked, the cashier rolled her eyes: “This is not busy,” she said.
Elysia and I crisscrossed Broadway, stopped here, stopped there, climbed the snowbanks, walked past the Homestead Bakery and Restaurant. Where, as it happened, and just the night before, Stephanie (my favorite bartender in the universe for her wry jokes), had said that tips were off, though business wasn’t so bad, in fact maybe a notch or two better on weekends, what with the Boiler Room having closed down over in Wilton, one failure meaning more success to spread around.
I’d also asked after business at the Dugout — strictly in the line of my research — but the bartender there didn’t seem to know there was an economic crisis out there in the world at all: “Business is always good here,” she said laughing. And anyway, nearly everyone in the place, being primarily students, laborers, musicians, eight-ball champs, and me, endure personal economic crises pretty much permanently.
Emily, the owner of the Calico Patch gift shop, is just plain cheerful. How’s business? A shrug, that’s all, a forgettable year, and then a story for Elysia about a time they didn’t have sleds so used garbage bags — you just cut holes for head and arms and get inside. Cute anecdote or warning?
Kenny at the bookstore said business in adult trade books is way down, part of a larger trend, but that the children’s section is doing well. I noticed a lot of books about weathering the current economic crisis.
(And, as a writer of books, let me just speak up here and say that I know you can’t eat the things, but you can take a budget vacation just by opening one! E-mail from my agent: several publishers have suspended acquisition of new titles. My own most recent publisher has shut down two enormous divisions and reorganized. But that’s so far from Farmington!)
I put on a smile, forget the disasters of my own trade, and take Elysia’s hand. Bearing several shopping bags by now, we trot over to Sugarwood Gallery, a craftsmen’s co-op, incredibly beautiful work in wood and fabric and clay and so forth. Someone there has set up one of those incredibly real looking puppies on a beautifully handcrafted dog bed. “Fake,” Elysia says.
I ask the older fellow on duty my question: “How’s business?”
“Pretty good,” he says.
Then, a few minutes later, as Elysia and I poke around among the exquisite items in the empty place, he adds a little: “Not many people in this week.” Then, “Which is supposed to be the biggest week of the year.” Then, “Really it’s pretty dismal.” E. and I buy a nicely made key-box in the shape of a guitar. This will be for my brother. I’m his secret Santa. She buys a box in the shape of a heart for her Mom.
“Imagine how long it takes to make a box like this,” the sales guy says, genuinely admiring.
“Probably he’s got a system,” I say.
“Look at the perfect finish on these things, though. I mean you add up all the time and materials. Guy’s probably making seventeen cents an hour.”
“But they’re beautiful,” Elysia says.
“Beautiful,” says the man.
Elysia and I cross the street yet again, a little too easily, none of the usual dance with drivers forgetting to stop for pedestrians: just not much traffic at all. Steve at Forest Rhythms, the ceramic shop, is sitting at his wheel, making tall forms that will be drums. Business? He’s got a guy who’s going to use the desk area of the tiny shop for his computer-consulting concern in exchange for watching the store, which will leave Steve free to make money doing other things. “Won’t keep him very busy,” Steve says ruefully.
Elysia and I buy a deep blue bowl and a cute little creamer — she reminds me we’ve chipped the lip off our old one, in case I have any reservations about spending more money.
Jewelry store, barber shop, snowboard gear haus, antiques, gourmet shop, it’s all the same story. But with everyone in the same boat, it’s not hard to remain cheerful — it’s no one in Farmington’s fault! — and there are smiles all up and down Broadway.
Those smiles will be getting tested. People are not just tightening their belts, they’re losing their pants. The University of Maine at Farmington is one of our biggest employers, for one example. There, a huge system-wide deficit has joined a campus-specific shortfall, and both have met up with reduced state funding and purposefully destroyed federal support to force some cruel decisions: how to cut 2.5 million dollars from an already taxed and already meager yearly budget? Over the past year or two they’ve cut all the fat, all the gristle, several fingers, all the toes, every strand of hair, and now it’s time to start cutting muscle: fifteen positions worth about a million dollars a year, something on the order of one percent of all the jobs in town, every single cut a real person with other real people depending on him or her. Five staff positions—goodbye secretaries! Five administrative people—goodbye assistants! And five faculty, two of them from Visual and Performing Arts. One of these cuts is our friend Margaret Westcott, who has taught dance devotedly at the little college for nearly thirty years. Goodbye tenure! Goodbye dance at UMF!
At the Christmas Eve service at Old South Congregational Church I asked Margaret if it would be okay to use her name in this column and she said, “Oh, yes, yes, and be sure to tell ’em I got fired! Don’t use any of that euphemistic language. Cost-cutting, downsizing. Put a human face on it! I’m devastated! Thirty years! I’ve been crying for days.” She was still crying — her famous son took her up in a hug.
Similar cutting and bloodletting is going on in all sectors of our little economy — healthcare, legal services, housing, food supply, you name it. And of course, it’s not a state problem. Nothing Maine did accounts for all our woes. The income taxes that flow out of the state used to flow back, sometimes even in augmented fashion, all in the form of dollars for education, roads, healthcare, etc., spending that created new jobs, that expressed civic will, the basic tenet of democracy: working together we can have the things we all need for a civilized life. But recent national priorities — at least official priorities — have stemmed this healthy flow, here and everywhere. The ten billion our fast-growing “small” government elects to spend per month in Iraq, for just one example, if applied to colleges, would provide a million dollars a month for a 1000 campuses!
But no one around here needs that much. All of UMF’s financial troubles could be solved by withholding just one “predator drone” mission from the current (only somewhat secret) assault on Taliban elements in Pakistan. Just one. Two would solve all the rest of our community’s financial problems.
Or maybe use the drones to bomb UMF, put it out of its misery, a military solution for every problem!
Because things are going to get worse before they get better
Bill Roorbach lives along Temple Stream and has contributed to several titles published by Down East, including A Place Called Maine.