Boosting economic, community development

Posted Feb. 08, 2011, at 8:21 p.m.

The Department of Economic and Community Development is one of the state’s most important agencies. You wouldn’t know it from the people who have headed the department.

For too long, this job went to retired politicians or others whom the governor needed to pay back.

In a state with a poor reputation for business attraction and development, DECD should be a vibrant agency, ready to help companies find ways to grow and prosper. It shouldn’t need a new small-business ombudsman, as Gov. Paul LePage has proposed, because this is the work the entire department is supposed to do.

Gov. LePage deserves credit for not going the political-patronage route in choosing his DECD commissioner. However, his choice’s lack of small-business experience is cause for concern.

Philip Congdon has an impressive resume — he worked for 22 years at Texas Instruments — but that doesn’t necessarily translate into expertise in helping small businesses grow or attracting new ones to locate in Maine.

This concern was heightened during Mr. Congdon’s confirmation hearings. He acknowledged to the Legislature’s Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee that he had no experience dealing with tourism, the state’s top industry. “My background in economic development is thin,” Mr. Congdon told the committee. “As far as community economic development, I’ll tell you right now, I haven’t done it.”

During the committee hearing last month, Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, asked Mr. Congdon how he planned to attract business to Aroostook County and other rural areas of Maine. “It’s [a question] I haven’t thought about,” he replied.

Not exactly confidence-inspiring.

His lack of economic development experience was worrisome to officials who work in that arena, as evidenced by a recent string of comments on Facebook.

“With the ever growing importance of a tactical economic development strategy for Maine, I must admit the Governors DECD nominee has me scratching my head,” read one post.

“Hiring someone with no experience in the core fundamentals of the top business development/strategy position in the state is not what I’d call putting the best and brightest in areas of need,” the same person posted later.

Creating jobs in Maine — which was the centerpiece of Gov. LePage’s campaign — requires a coordinated, thoughtful approach.

Given Mr. Congdon’s experience as an engineer and businessman, he likely is a quick and astute learner. He’d better be.

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