Chamber urged to think outside the ‘big box’

Posted Jan. 13, 2009, at 9:23 p.m.

ORONO, Maine — A University of Maine System economist is thinking “outside the box” in a really big way.

Bangor could have a 600,000-square-foot development park ready to use by this summer if it moves to take advantage of some big box store locations off Stillwater Avenue near the Bangor Mall, said James Breece, the system’s vice chancellor of academic affairs.

“We have here a high value-added development park,” Breece told the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce’s annual business breakfast Tuesday at the Black Bear Inn. “We do need a lot of imagination and hard work. … But as Wayne Gretzky said, think about where the puck is going, not where it’s been.”

As Breece envisions things, the park would consist of the former Home Depot building, which is now vacant and available, the Shaw’s building, which will be mostly vacant and available by the end of February, and the Target, Wal-Mart and Burlington Coat Factory buildings, all of which have tenants.

A Bangor city official pointed out that Lowe’s Home Improvement has a permit to go into the Wal-Mart building, once the new Super Wal-Mart on Stillwater Avenue is ready to be used. Neither the Burlington Coat Factory nor Target has indicated that it intends to move.The economic benefits of such a project include increased employment with higher-paying jobs, a “vibrant” local economy and global recognition, Breece said. In addition to usable buildings, the site is conveniently located near the state’s pre-eminent university, good transportation and a burgeoning medical research industry.

Film studios, aerospace technologies, computer software systems and medical research might be possible tenants to take advantage of the space.

“I don’t think we can afford not to do it,” Breece said.

His idea woke up the chamber members even more than their breakfast coffee did — but it was met with varying degrees of enthusiasm, curiosity and skepticism by area officials and redevelopment experts.

“Looking at the assets he outlined, it makes sense,” said Candy Guerette, president of the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce. “Our challenge is to look at it in a new light — what we’ve seen as retail is not necessarily retail. … It got people thinking, ‘Yes, he’s right.’”

Jake Ward, assistant vice president of research, economic development and government relations at the University of Maine, said Maine is known for having good workers.

“One of the things we get high marks on in this area is the stability of our labor force,” Ward said.

While the idea of filling 600,000 square feet with small start-up companies is “a little daunting,” he said, a new development park might take a page from its neighbor across Hogan Road.

“It needs to be like a mall,” he said.

Rodney McKay, director of community and economic development for the city of Bangor, said that while the city hasn’t been greatly concerned about retail “shuffling” in the mall area, universities are often driving forces for research parks.

“Typically what you see in other areas is that universities will attract businesses through their research and development. A lot of high-tech firms need to be developed near university facilities. There’s great potential there,” McKay said. “In the Bangor area, there’s two really strong driving forces — the medical field, which is continuously expanding and growing, and the university.”

Raymond Cota, a vice president of Webber Oil, said that the company is open to suggestions about the future of the Shaw’s building, which a Webber subsidiary owns.

“We’ll listen to anything right now,” he said. “Having been intimately involved with the development of the Orono research park, I wouldn’t dismiss any type of idea as being too far out. … In these times, everybody has to be open to ideas.”

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