Northern Exposure

Posted Oct. 11, 2009, at 7:11 p.m.

Funding for the Northern Border Regional Commission, which 2nd District Rep. Mike Michaud is working hard to secure, might seem only to empower another group whose members will sit around a table and wring their hands about Maine’s economic plight. But one point makes the case for the new entity — it is part of the federal government, and therefore has a close connection to federal funding.

Towns, counties and the state itself have created similar bodies, governmental and nongovernmental, to work on economic development, but the NBRC will be a federal agency. The region under the commission’s purview includes 12 of Maine’s 16 counties (all but York, Cumberland, Sagadahoc and Lincoln), as well as 24 counties across northern New Hampshire, Vermont and New York.

Rep. Michaud learned of the success of other such regional federal agencies, most notably the Appalachian Regional Commission, created in 1965, and in 2004 began seeking creation of a northern version of that group. The 2008 federal farm bill created the NBRC, along with similar organizations in the Southwest and Southeast.

Each dollar of funding for the Appalachian Regional Commission, Rep. Michaud said in a press release, “leveraged $2.57 in other public funding and $8.46 in private funding.”

The House of Representatives has approved $1.5 million in initial funding for the commission, and the Senate is expected to vote soon on the money.

Each governor of the four states in the region will serve on the commission, along with a federal representative to be nominated by the president. That representative is likely to be from Maine.

Ed Gilman, Rep. Michaud’s spokesman, said, “given Maine’s needs, much of the funding would come to our state.”

Beyond the stature the commission will have as a federal agency, Mr. Gilman notes that it will be able to leverage other government and private funds. And, unlike any other federal agency, commission funds can be used as a match for other federal funds. That means that if a local economic development or infrastructure initiative can’t meet its local match, the NBRC can step in.

The cross-state nature of the agency represents a fresh approach to Maine’s economic and infrastructure problems. Fixes that have worked in upstate New York, for example, may be applied regionwide, “so we’re not reinventing the wheel,” Mr. Gilman said. Similarly, if new solutions are developed, they will be applied to a broader area, giving taxpayers a bigger bang for their buck. Mr. Gilman said the 36 counties have a lot in common, and collectively can appeal to private sector investment because of the region’s size.

Transportation, information technology networks and energy needs top the list of challenges in all four states. Working together through a regional approach could identify regional solutions.

Mr. Gilman said Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe has been “absolutely great” in supporting the creation and funding of the NBRC. Rep. Michaud also deserves credit for fighting for this corner of the country.

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