Saint John’s Lessons

Posted Aug. 04, 2009, at 6:23 p.m.

Bangor’s unofficial sister city Saint John, New Brunswick, has taken some innovative approaches to economic development that may be instructive here. The city’s economic development group, Enterprise Saint John, has achieved success on two key fronts: uniting the efforts of like-minded groups, and narrowing the focus of its marketing efforts to lure not business, but people. Bangor could learn a lesson from Saint John’s strategies.

“Just over a decade ago we recognized that we had a problem,” writes Bob Manning, chairman of Enterprise Saint John. “Our undiversified economy was suffering, our reputation was poor, and we were failing to retain our skilled labor, our youth, and attract new residents to our region.” Since then, the city’s boosters have marked a turnaround.

A key first step was to include surrounding municipalities in the economic development effort. Saint John’s population is 122,389, but the population of the surrounding area within an hour’s drive is 225,000. “Working together,” Mr. Manning writes on the group’s Web site, “we could focus on ‘growing the pie’ rather than fighting over its pieces.”

For Bangor, that would mean not only inviting surrounding communities to the table, but also uniting the various economic boosters under a single flag, something that is under way through Mobilize Maine.

The second strategy Enterprise Saint John employed might seem counterintuitive, but it paid off. Rather than work to boost tourism, lure new businesses such as paper plants and other manufacturers, or even firms tied to the information economy, Enterprise Saint John instead focused on “the things that retain and attract people, ideas and investment.” Mr. Manning writes: “It is all about building a community that people want to live in, work in, raise their families and build long-term rewarding careers. And now we’re seeing the benefits.”

Those benefits have included growth in information and communication technologies, energy and advanced manufacturing, health sciences and tourism sectors.

On reflection, it makes perfect sense — build a community in which people want to live. Those who would relocate to places like Saint John or Bangor, lured by their quality of life, are a self-selected group; generally, they have some financial resources, postsecondary education, technical or other skills, and the entrepreneurial spark. Those are the sorts of people who will help build existing businesses as employees, or will start their own businesses. They also buy and improve houses, and they support the very things that drew them in the first place, such as quality schools, family-friendly low-crime neighborhoods, the arts, parks and outdoor recreation opportunities.

The Brookings Institute’s 2007 study of Maine essentially reached the same conclusion: Focus on polishing the assets that make Maine a great place to live, work and recreate, and economic development will follow.

Perhaps the greatest lesson Bangor can take from Saint John is to look less for an economic savior from away, and instead work to give our local entrepreneurs what they need to succeed.

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