June 19, 2018
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Maine economic development that’s built to last

Michael W. Aube is President of Eastern Maine Development Corporation located in Bangor. He is a past Commissioner of Maine's Department of Economic and Community Development and former State Director of Maine USDA Rural Development.
By Michael Aube, Special to the BDN

Editor’s note: Michael Aube’s column will appear every other week in the Bangor Daily News’ Friday Business section and online at http://new.bangordailynews.com/business/.

What is economic development? By definition, it’s “anything that can be done to stimulate the economy of any population.”

Seems simple enough. It’s the deeper question of whose job is it to spur economic development that gets confusing.

Should government be finding the answers? Or does improving the economy rest on the shoulders of businesses, also called the “private sector”?

The answer? Both. It’s all about teamwork.

The private sector creates real and meaningful jobs. The role of governments is to ensure that responsibilities that are public are supported and advanced. A review of best practices across the country continuously suggests that a real and meaningful partnership must exist among education, economic development and employment — three things that are truly critical for private sector success. At Eastern Maine Development Corporation we call it E3. The E3 concept highlights Maine’s “intellectual infrastructure” capacity and keeps us focused on the key elements to success.

Former Speaker of the House Thomas “Tip” O’Neil was fond of saying, “all politics is local.” Similarly, many economic development professionals believe that all economic development is local. It is based upon local institutions, local leadership and local commitment. We are fortunate in Maine to have all regions of our state serviced by “economic development districts” or EDDs. These federally designated organizations are governed by a board of directors made up of local public officials and private sector leaders. The EDDs work in partnership with federal, state and local governments and the private sector to create an environment for economic growth. Former Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie was an unwavering advocate for an intergovernmental approach to the functional delivery of services. The EDD model for Maine provides for roles and responsibilities at all levels of government but, most importantly, with local decision making.

Unfortunately, historically Maine has never been consistent in its strategy or approach. The economic development strategy changed as frequently as our weather. We have failed, as a state, to consistently embrace any economic development strategy. Instead, we switch our strategy based upon the newest slogan, book or political philosophy.

Ironically, that’s what needs to change.

We need to go back to basics and ask ourselves two fundamental questions:

1) What are our assets?

2) How do we advance them?

Once we’ve answered those questions it’s time to invest in the basic “intellectual infrastructure” (E3 again) to advance growth. Growth leads to private investment, which leads to the need for and availability of quality education. Once there’s an educated work force there’s increased need for careers.

There is good news on the horizon. Today, the EDDs and the local, state and federal governments are moving toward a partnership that gives the leadership and reins to the private sector to build the strategy and stay the course. This new model and consistency is a silver lining in what has been too long of an economic recession. Fiscal reality, advanced technology, the need for rapid decision making and flexibility have forced this new model. We can no longer afford to plan and wait; we must build on our assets now. We have come to a prediction by “In Search of Excellence” co-author Tom Peter that we must “thrive on chaos.”

All of the EDDs in the United States perform at varying levels and degrees of service. Fortunately, Maine’s six EDDs are developing real and meaningful strategies that are constructed on assets. They’re built to be sustainable and consistent. They’re designed to withstand transitioning elections, interests and the newest wave. The model of Mobilize Maine is such an effort. The private sector sets the strategy, benchmarks and goals. The EDDs and other partners deliver the support services necessary to advance the assets so they may prosper and grow in the global marketplace.

Success is where hard work and good luck meet. In Maine, our successful businesses are planning for the future, pushing the envelope. They’re providing added value to their products and services. They understand that their competition isn’t in Maine but rather in Thailand, India or Brazil. Efforts like Mobilize Maine must seek to help these businesses compete. Our region needs the investment and jobs. Our businesses need the support mechanism to sustain their risk-taking and advancement.

In the coming weeks in this space, we will highlight specific trends, innovation and entrepreneurship in Maine. We’ll examine public policies and networks that are the key to Maine’s economic future and those that hinder prosperity. We will examine how Maine moves from job creation to career development so that pool of potential employees expands, not contracts. What are the critical “intellectual infrastructure” assets and needs in Maine? Who are the successful businesses and sectors in Maine? How are they sustaining their efforts?

As we uncover these new opportunities the hope is to again find Norumbega, the lost, legendary city of riches.

Michael W. Aube is president of Eastern Maine Development Corporation in Bangor. He is a past commissioner of Maine’s Department of Economic and Community Development and former state director of Maine USDA Rural Development.

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