Development chief Trafton says attitude key to better economy

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Posted March 04, 2010, at 8:43 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — As Maine’s top economic development officer, Thaxter Trafton knows his chief responsibility these days is as much about helping preserve jobs as creating new employment within the state.

But Trafton, who spent a career in professional sports management before returning to his native state, said another big focus over the next 11 months will be on the environment within the state agency that he heads.

“There is one thing you can change and that’s attitude,” said Trafton, who was sworn in as commissioner of the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development in February. “Attitude has everything to do with how people work, their productivity, how they feel.”

If Trafton sounds a bit like a coach, there’s good reason for it.

The 73-year-old is a former president of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers and also ran the sports complex in California that was home to football’s Oakland Raiders, baseball’s Oakland A’s and basketball’s Golden State Warriors.

Trafton helped found and served as commissioner of the short-lived International Basketball League, a professional league based in Baltimore. He has worked as a consultant to professional sports teams and facilities, an events promoter in Los Angeles and managed Phoenix’s large coliseum as well as several amusement parks.

Longtime Bangor residents, meanwhile, may recognize Trafton from when he served in the 1960s through 1980 as the city’s parks and recreation director and then executive director of Bass Park. John Bapst High School alumni may remember him as a former teacher and coach.

In 2003, Bangor native and newly elected Gov. John Baldacci offered him a spot within the Department of Economic and Community Development.

Trafton was still living in California after resigning in 2002 as chief administrative officer of the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Authority amid a power struggle.

He had been hired by Oakland with hopes of bridging serious rifts that had developed between the sports teams and the complex; the relationship lasted less than a year.

But Trafton said he embraced the chance to return to Maine. Born in Danforth, Trafton grew up in Bath and earned his bachelor’s degree from Husson College.

Last November, Baldacci named him acting commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development when then-Commissioner John Richardson stepped down to seek the Democratic nomination for governor.

Asked how his experience in sports management fit into the world of economic development, Trafton said he believes his experience in the worlds of promotions and big-business professional sports — such as overseeing a $60 million budget in Oakland — have definite applications.

“When the offer came to work in the Department of Economic and Community Development, I felt I had a pretty diverse background in running businesses,” Trafton said recently.

And then there is his competitive streak.

“I love to win. There is nothing wrong with that,” he said while seated in his sizable office, decorated with family photos and sports paraphernalia.

Trafton assumed his new responsibilities at a time when the agency he now heads is under considerable scrutiny.

Baldacci has directed Trafton to restructure the department as part of his budget-cutting measures.

Part of those changes are a decentralization effort in which business specialists will be placed in regional economic development district offices and employees will be cross-trained so someone previously focusing on business development could also focus on tourism issues.

“We are going to save about $250,000 because we are streamlining, and we’re going to be more effective,” Trafton said.

Sen. Kevin Raye, the Senate minority leader, said there is plenty of room for discussion about how the state and the Department of Economic and Community Development can best encourage job growth.

But Raye, R-Perry, said the department has been hamstrung by policies enacted by both the Legislature and the administration that make it more difficult to recruit new companies into the state and for existing businesses to thrive.

“I think it is important to have a Cabinet-level position whose sole purposes are jobs and job creation in the state,” Raye said.

Trafton acknowledged that his department has critics, and defended his department, pointing to a decision last year to extend the Pine Tree Development Zone to all areas of the state. If all of the new participants in the program lived up to their stated employment goals, Maine could add another 1,400 jobs, he said.

And while Maine’s unemployment rate is still high at more than 8 percent, it is nearly 2 percentage points lower than the national average.

Like all department heads in Maine state government, Trafton serves at the request of the governor. That means his tenure as chief economic development officer could end next January when the new governor appoints his or her own commissioners.

Either way, Trafton said he has no intention of retiring.

“I couldn’t stop working, particularly if I feel I can bring something to the table, if I can make a difference,” he said. “I believe I can make a difference, whether for 10 months or 10 years.”

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