Down East development group seeks new role

Posted Nov. 16, 2010, at 9:31 p.m.

MACHIAS, Maine — While struggling to determine its role within the county, the Washington County Development Authority elected a new president and vice president Tuesday.

Outgoing president Jim Parker resigned because he was elected earlier this month to the Maine House of Representatives, serving District 18, which includes Veazie, Orono and parts of Bangor.

Harold Prescott of Whiting was elected president and Betsy Fitzgerald of Machiasport, who is also the county manager, was elected vice president.

While putting leadership in place was a simple act for the WCDA members, defining who and what the organization is has not come easily.

Christine Laurel, who was hired last month as the first executive director of the WCDA, presented her plan of action to the members on Oct. 19 but has received little feedback, she said Tuesday.

The WCDA originally was founded by the Legislature to deal with surplus government property in Washington County. Without any property now, however, the group has turned its attention increasingly to economic development.

Laurel said she needs to know what the members believe their role in county development is before she can promote WCDA effectively.

Parker said that WCDA should help attract new businesses while providing support to sustain those that exist.

Laurel said she found that more than 1,200 businesses exist in the county, not including farms, and that there are 68 nonprofit agencies operating Down East.

WCDA Treasurer Normand LaBerge said these numbers are “very impressive. That is almost one company for every 30 people.”

But member Ed Pellon said he questions the specifics of the data.

“Do we know how many are seasonal, part-time or full time?” he asked. He also said that despite Washington County having the oldest population in the state and a high number of retirees, the unemployment rate in the county remains high.

Parker suggested that as Laurel continues to craft a plan of action, she accent the positive assets of the county rather than the negative.

Laurel had written in a draft that the county “has a remote location and lack of proximity to highways, trains and airports, a low percentage of industrial and service entities to serve as a base, and the lack of an available trained and educated work force.”

“We already know the negatives,” member Barbara Drisko said. “We need to talk about the positives.”

The members suggested that Laurel research the mission and goals of other economic development agencies in the county, such as Sunrise County Economic Council, so there will not be any duplication of effort.

The next meeting of the WCDA will be at 3 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 21, at the Career Center in Machias.

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