BANGOR, Maine — Most movers and shakers in Greater Bangor probably would acknowledge that economic development in the region during the last several years has been marginal at best.
It’s not for lack of effort, but rather for lack of communication and collaboration. Several area groups that keep a close eye on economic development might claim to work together, but when it comes down to it, they rarely do, community leaders say.
Recently, some of those same business and community leaders have been working hard to change that, and they believe their timing couldn’t be better. Since the beginning of 2009, a group has been meeting to discuss ways for certain agencies and organizations to work together. It now has a name — the Greater Bangor Region Economic Development Group — and its leaders say their idea is gaining traction.
“Everyone seemed to agree that we don’t have a common voice,” said Jerry Whalen, vice president of development for Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems and one of the organizers. “But at the same time, everyone agreed that we absolutely need to come together.”
The group features representatives from the following area organizations: the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce, Eastern Maine Development Corp., the Bangor Region Development Alliance, the Action Committee of 50, the Greater Bangor Convention and Visitors Bureau, Bangor Target Area Development Corp., and Ac-cess Atlantica, which is committed to strengthening the trade corridor between Bangor and Saint John, New Brunswick.
Members of the new group recently signed a memo of understanding that defines a more active relationship and that also outlines goals for the coming months.
“We don’t have an interest in creating a new economic development entity, just a way for existing ones to work toward the same goals,” Whalen said.
It’s not the first time area development organizations have tried to get together. Something similar was formed about 15 years ago but failed to get off the ground.
“I think the current economic recession is an opportunity for people to think more about collaboration,” said Andrew Hamilton, a lawyer with Eaton Peabody who sits on the board of the Chamber of Commerce. “The spirit and culture seems right.”
The new group may even have a model to the east. At a recent meeting, the group welcomed guest speaker Stephen Carson, who is CEO of a group called Enterprise Saint John that has been around for about 15 years.
Carson spoke about how the Saint John development group came together in the 1990s when formerly vibrant area industries such as shipbuilding and heavy manufacturing began to decline. Basically, he said, Saint John reinvented itself by harnessing its strengths: energy, telecommunications and health care.
So what are Bangor strengths?
“That’s what we’re trying to nail down,” Whalen said. “But all these groups involved have their own niche. We’re not trying to merge them. Each can contribute.”
Michael Aube, head of Eastern Maine Development, has spent a lot of time lately building momentum around asset-based development.
“It’s basically a cultural mind-shift to think less about what we don’t have and more on building on what’s here,” he said. “And it’s probably different here than in other areas. In the past, there were a lot of wish lists, but that’s not realistic.”
Aside from the recession spurring more collaboration, Whalen said the economic development landscape in Bangor is changing. EMDC, for instance, lacked solid leadership in the past, he said, but now has Aube leading its effort. Similarly, the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce recently decided to part ways with longtime president and CEO Candy Guerette. Coincidentally, Whalen is chairing the search committee for Guerette’s replacement.
Are there potential stumbling blocks? Sure. In any discussions like these, turf wars and political considerations always have a seat at the table. But members of the new group are not concerned.
“It’s important to consider, as you have better communication, you also can move toward complementary strategy,” Aube said. “Personally, I’ve never felt there were any huge turf wars; we just didn’t pay attention to each other that closely.”
Whalen said he hopes to see the group continue to grow in the coming months.
“We’ve talked to municipal representatives, and there are some who think we should get the state involved,” he said. “I think our attitude is, ‘Let’s get our act together and then we can start bringing in more people.’”