Fresh look at Maine’s assets focus of initiative

Posted July 24, 2009, at 8:24 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — With the national and state economies ailing and many of Maine’s traditional industries — such as shoe manufacturing and papermaking — on the decline, business and community leaders in Maine believe that now is the time to shake things up and take a fresh look at economic development.

They’re gearing up to do just that through a new initiative called Mobilize Maine, which will attempt to identify unique assets that exist in economic development regions across the state.

Once identified, those assets — whether agricultural, marine-based, educational, economic or cultural — would form the basis of each area’s own locally driven economic development strategy.

The idea is to use the assets to help the state’s economy grow. That in turn would increase income and population levels, both of which have been stagnant, organizers of Mobilize Maine say.

The new initiative represents “a real cultural change — to me that’s the biggest thing,” said Michael Aube, president of Eastern Maine Development Corp., one of six economic development organizations in Maine that are participating in the effort.

“It’s a culture shock. It’s a restart and you couldn’t ask to do it at a better time, given the national and state economy,” he said in an interview Wednesday evening just before a session at Bangor Savings Bank’s G. Clifton Eames Learning Center. The session was led by consultants from Vital Economy Alliance Inc., a firm that FairPoint Communications brought to Maine to introduce the concept.

“I’ve been in economic development for 35 years and this is the biggest change that I’ve seen Maine looking to do,” Aube added. “It’s a major shift in thinking. We don’t think, ‘If we only had another industrial park.’ No, it’s, ‘What are the good things we have? … And how are we really going to be able to leverage those so that our economy grows?”

Bangor City Manager Edward Barrett, who sits on the Governor’s Council on Maine’s Quality of Place, a key backer of Mobilize Maine, agreed with Aube’s assessment.

For too long, he said, economic and community development in Maine has been driven by whoever is in charge in Augusta, with strategies and priorities changing with each new administration.

“There are two things we’re trying to do that kind of puts this into context,” Barrett said at Wednesday’s gathering. “The first is we’re really trying to change the economic development model from a state-driven, top-down model to a locally driven, bottom-up model. We really want to change that approach so that local regions can say this is what we want for economic development. Then we can go to Augusta and tell them, ‘Support this.’”

State resources then can be targeted to those local goals, he said.

“I think this is a great opportunity for us to stop looking at Augusta and complaining about Augusta and start telling Augusta what we want and what they can do to support us,” Barrett added.

With leadership training for Mobilize Maine already under way, officials are getting ready to take stock of what each of Maine’s six economic development districts has to offer prospective businesses and new residents, Aube said.

In a method that is new to the state, Mobilize Maine will use computer databases and spreadsheets to provide local economic development planners with economic indicators. That information can then be used to forecast the effects of economic changes, such as a company moving into or out of the region.

FairPoint Communications, which took over Verizon’s telephone land line service in Maine earlier this year, will provide $200,000 to keep the computer database system up-to-date for five years.

Pamela Joy, FairPoint’s vice president of community affairs, said Wednesday that the investment is part of the company’s commitment to Maine.

“We’ve done this in our other markets over the years. We’ve demonstrated that it works,” she said.

“The state [of Maine’s population] was 1 million people 10 years ago. It’s 1,100,000 now. We want it to grow. And if it grows, it develops, we’ll grow,” Joy said.

In eastern Maine, the process of taking stock of the area’s assets will begin the week of Sept. 14, Aube said.

Because EMDC’s six-county service area consists of a range of economies — from marine resources in Washington County to natural resources in northern Penobscot County and Piscataquis County, to educational and capital centers in Greater Bangor — the service area will be divided into five subregions, each of which will develop its own strategy based on its own assets, he said.

The goal is to get at least 100 people from each subregion to participate, perhaps twice that number in the Bangor area, which is considered the growth center for the whole region, he said.

Once the assets have been listed, people in each subregion will go through a series of questions aimed at helping them determine how those assets can be used, Aube said.

“We’re very interested in how this evolves, so it’s really exciting,” he said of the initiative.

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