Lemforder Loss

Posted Jan. 21, 2009, at 7:38 p.m.

The sad news that the ZF Lemforder Corp. plant in Brewer will close in 2010 is probably the first of many such developments around Maine and the U.S., as the hard realities of a receding economy trickle down to Main Street. The company’s management is to be commended for being forthright about its future, allowing workers to plan ahead and economic development agencies to respond.

Though manufacturing plants that employ hundreds tend to dominate the headlines when they close, hundreds of smaller Maine businesses will cut jobs in the coming months, and scores of others will simply close. The results are easier to understand in larger scale, but they are the same throughout the economy. In Brewer, 127 paychecks will disappear, to be replaced — in most cases — with unemployment checks that are smaller. Without jobs, 127 households will rein in spending and put off unnecessary purchases, thereby resulting in less revenue flowing into area restaurants, movie theaters, and clothing, book and furniture stores. Those businesses will, in turn, consider ways to cut expenses, including cutting workers. It’s a downward spiral gaining momentum.

Because of this, it’s important for policymakers at the state and federal levels to understand that their efforts to stimulate the economy largely must be focused on job creation. In good times, governments can afford to be more abstract in their approach, investing in research and development that would eventually lead to jobs, or, in less bad times, investing in short-term “make work” projects such as seasonal road paving that created temporary jobs. This time, each government dollar spent must earn its keep in job creation.

Maine’s state economic development efforts have, at times in the past, touted the availability of a work force willing to work for less than its counterparts in other states. Tooting that horn should be a last resort, though in these dark days, it would be understandable to include that fact in a list of Maine’s attributes.

A better approach would be to do some educated economic prognostication and identify the growth industries of the future. John Richardson, commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development, is taking this approach. Maine missed getting in on the ground floor of the Internet and biotech booms, but it has an opportunity to be part of the rising “clean tech,” or green economy, he said.

From composites used in aircraft manufacturing, to wind turbines, tidal power, solar and geothermal energy development, Maine economic development staff is working to match existing work forces — such as the workers at Lemforder — with these nascent industries, the commissioner said.

The window of opportunity will remain open briefly, and while the federal government — which does not have to balance its budget — can focus on priming the economy, the state should work to match investment to the right industries.

There’s no better place to start than in Brewer.

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