June 24, 2018
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Economic and business development: Forbes perception versus reality

By Michael W. Aube, Special to the BDN

This year’s survey from Forbes Magazine ranked Maine at the bottom of its list of the best states for business and careers. Again. But, if you were to ask most Maine businesspeople and the majority of Maine’s economic development professionals, you likely would hear something quite different. However, since the Forbes survey has ranked Maine near the bottom of the list for several consecutive years, we risk perception becoming reality.

Like most surveys, Forbes uses criteria which attempt to provide uniform benchmarks in order to review and analyze data. Six categories were used to create benchmarks to determine the state rankings. While a benchmark system is fair, the rub comes when you consider that a universal measurement system may not provide a true, intellectual analysis of the economic vitality of a state or region. I can think of categories of measure that would give Maine high rankings and more importantly, if viewed from a regional (multistate) perspective, a significant competitive advantage.

Comparisons of like benchmarks should evolve from regional strategies. Centralized systems certainly make interesting reading, but what important assets are being left out? For example, if a benchmark were to focus on educational and business opportunities for marine-related businesses and an ocean-factored economic development-driven strategy, I am convinced that Maine would score very well. Sorry Kansas!

In a survey that should be ranking states based on their assets and potential, the Forbes surveys use of national criteria alone is its most significant shortcoming. A better system of measurement would be on regional strategies, economic sectors and-or business clusters. An analysis of these data would present a more realistic picture to businesses seeking a competitive climate for their particular industry where they can invest and grow. Not all businesses are alike. Business goals are different and require systems that provide support for their specific needs, such as product, work force and capital. As such, the measurement of a particular state’s ability to provide a successful foundation for a business shouldn’t be judged with a broad brush. Where one state may fall short, another excels and vice versa.

I recall that one of my nephews was given a poor performance mark while attending elementary school because he used too much “glue” in his art projects. He did not compare well to his peers in that benchmark. Today he is a Stanford University graduate and has served as CEO of a growing high-tech communications company.

Maine may not and cannot be the right location for all people or all businesses. Frankly, no state can be the right place for all business. Businesses have focused goals and necessary outcomes. Maine can and should be the place of choice for the businesses whose needs are met by our existing assets.

The Forbes survey also causes some to question whether Maine’s brand of high-quality product and skilled workmanship have value. Of course it does.

How many pairs of L.L. Bean boots are sold? Do you order “Utah lobster” for your relatives and friends? How many “Texas Wreaths” go to market? For most folks I know, an L.L. Bean boot, a Maine lobster and a wreath from Whitney Wreath are products of value — and products you just can’t get anywhere else.

As a state and as economic development professionals, we are challenged with convincing businesses that the Forbes analysis has created a false perception. We need to send the message that Maine is a good state in which to do business. Our business and community leaders need to work even harder to insure the regional opportunities in Maine are welcomed and encouraged. We need the spirit to move forward to the reality that increased business and growing career opportunities are goals that can be accomplished in the “Dirigo” state.

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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