HUDSON, Maine — There are 36 counties in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and New York that have something in common, and it’s not something anyone is celebrating.
Among other things, the four states’ northernmost counties suffer from what economic development experts call “long-term economic distress.”
Sandford “Sandy” Blitz of Hudson is one of those experts. In fact, after a confirmation process by the U.S. Senate that ended earlier this month, Blitz is poised to become one of the top economic development officials in the northeastern United States. Blitz, who has already held lofty economic development posts at the local, state and federal levels, has been named federal co-chairman of the yet-to-be-formed Northern Border Regional Commission.
That means Blitz is the federal representative on a five-person commission that includes himself and the governors of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and New York.
“This is the greatest honor,” said Blitz. “It’s not too many times that you get an opportunity like this.”
The concept of the Northern Border Regional Commission already has been tried in other parts of the country and, according to Blitz, has ushered in success that at first glance is hard to believe. The Appalachian Regional Commission, which includes parts of 13 states between New York and Mississippi, was formed in the 1960s. At that time, one-third of Appalachians lived in poverty and per-capita income was 23 percent lower than the national average. In the 1950s, more than 2 million residents of Appalachia left the area to seek work in other regions, according to the commission’s Web site.
Since then, according to Blitz, the poverty rate has dropped by 60 percent and, perhaps as importantly, the out-migration has slowed significantly. He hopes for similar results along the northeastern border with Canada, where many areas hold double-digit unemployment rates even without the recession.
In essence, the Northern Border Regional Commission will operate similarly to many economic development agencies in that its main focus will be administering federal grants. The difference, said Blitz, is the scale. Instead of focusing on a specific town or county, the projects undertaken by the commission will be on a much wider scope. In fact, the law that authorized the NBRC — which the Maine congressional delegation had advocated for since 2003 before being joined by the three other states — stipulates that any project undertaken by the commission must have a “regional impact.”
In addition, the commission is required to spend no more than 10 percent of its funding on administration. At least 40 percent of the grant money is to be spent on transportation projects, public infrastructure and telecommunications. The remaining money will be doled out at the commission’s discretion, with priority given to projects that have matching funds and support from the communities they would affect. In most cases, the projects will involve smaller economic development agencies that already exist.
The budget in the commission’s first year is $1.5 million, but Congress may allocate up to $30 million per year, said Blitz.
As part of the appointment process, Blitz testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works in February. He called the appointment “the greatest honor that has ever been bestowed upon me.”
“I believe that bringing Maine, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont together with the assistance of the federal government will result in farsighted, well-conceived approaches to bring opportunity to the northern border,” Blitz said during his testimony. “The NBRC will be another vehicle, with resources, to assist the creation of much-needed jobs in a region under enormous economic strain.”
Blitz has served in a variety of roles over the years, including stints with the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration and the Small Business Administration, but some of his fondest memories are tied to projects in Maine. Years ago he was involved in an expansion at the port of Eastport and was a speaker at a grand opening celebration. After the ceremony, he was approached by the leader of a local union.
“He said to me, ‘I want to thank you,’” said Blitz, suddenly wiping away tears from behind his glasses. “He said, ‘Now I can go home and tell my kids we don’t have to move.’ Things like that are enormously rewarding.”
Blitz expects to step into his new role in the coming weeks. The first order of business will be meeting with the four governors to make decisions about what the commission’s focus will be and where it will be located.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud of Maine’s 2nd District joined other members of the delegation in congratulating Blitz.
“Having worked with Sandy Blitz for years, I am confident that his regional knowledge and his expertise in economic development will serve Maine and the entire region extremely well,” said Michaud in a press release.
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, agreed.
“He brings extraordinary talent and experience to the commission,” said Collins in a release. “I look forward to working with him to strengthen economic opportunities in our region.”