MACHIAS, Maine — When First Wind appeared before the Land Use Regulatory Commission and the state Legislature, attempting to construct a wind turbine farm on Stetson Mountain, the Sunrise County Economic Council testified in its favor.
When Cooke Aquaculture of Eastport recently doubled its work force by adding 100 new positions, the economic council was on hand for the reopening of Cooke’s Machiasport salmon processing plant.
The council also founded the Washington County Leadership Institute, which has graduated more than 200 alumni in the past 13 years.
A nonprofit, grass-roots organization, the council was founded in 1993 to foster the county’s economic development. Over the past three years it has helped usher more than $220 million worth of investments into Washington County.
“We have great support in the greater Machias community for the work we are doing here,” Executive Director Harold Clossey said recently. Evidence of that was clear when 50 new members signed on during a recent capital campaign.
“We are a private, nonprofit agency,” Clossey explained. “We are not a state or federal agency.”
The council has four full-time employees, but several more are carried under its umbrella, which includes the business support center, an online small-business resource directory, the Washington County Council of Governments, Down East Business Alliance and Washington County: One Community.
“These are great resources,” Clossey said. “And they are here, not in Augusta or Bangor.”
The council is funded by $30,000 from Washington County, an intensive capital campaign, grants and foundations.
Roland “Skip” Rogers, a council board member, said there was a countywide economic group in place before 1993. “But that was an old boys’ business-as-usual group, and we wanted something inclusive; something that reached out to all ends of the county. We are not the overlords of economic development in Washington County. That is what we wanted to avoid.”
Clossey said the council is not just about helping business survive, but helping it thrive.
“We talk all the time about locating new businesses in Washington County, but it is every bit as vital that we support the businesses that are already here,” Clossey said. “An important piece of this is working close with the community college and the University of Maine at Machias.”
Clossey said the council is looking ahead to port and rail transportation, off- and onshore wind projects. “These are part of the future for Washington County,” he said.
During the recent Stetson Mountain wind farm development, the council worked out the first tax increment financing program in the state that returns money to the county.
“It has never been done in Maine before,” Clossey said. “$9.1 million will come into Washington County over the next 30 years for economic development.”
These funds must be used in the unorganized territories, he said, which will help take some of the burden and impact off service center communities. Clossey said he hopes the council will manage that funding and funnel the money into loan programs, public facilities and nature-based tourism efforts.
“We’ve learned from Domtar that we can’t be a one-trick pony,” he said, referring to a major employer in Baileyville. “We need a tighter focus. We need to be diversified. We need to go beyond blueberries and lobster.”
Clossey said Washington County is deeply rooted in forestry and tourism and that’s where balance comes into play.
“We can’t be a state park, but we can’t be an industrial park, either,” he said.
Rogers added “We can’t put all our efforts into tourism. Nobody wants to go on vacation and see poor people.”
But building on tourism is also key. Board member Cindy Huggins said, “Tourism, recreation and the arts in Washington County are amazing. They speak to the quality of life we can use as an economic tool.”
Clossey said partnerships between state, federal and local agencies must be seamless for the council to function. “It’s not unusual to find three to five funding mechanisms for a single project,” he said. “We can’t do any of this alone. We have to be a part of a collaborative partnership.”
Rogers said, “If you look at the U.S. as a whole, we’re the backyard. If you look at the region, including the Maritimes, we’re right in the middle. We’re no longer at the end of the line anymore.”