April 20, 2018
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Midcoast leaders gather to develop regional economic strategy

By Heather Steeves, BDN Staff

ROCKPORT, Maine — Camden has a ski mountain. Rockland has a cool-looking lighthouse perched at the end of a long, stone breakwater. Belfast has strong university programming. So, why fight for businesses and tourism? Why not bundle and market the whole region as a package? Those are the sorts of questions that brought several business-minded people together at a table in Rockport on Friday evening.

The new group will focus on economically strengthening the midcoast as a region — not the traditional way, town by town.

“It’s important to work regionally because we are in a very similar area. For residents and visitors to stay in the walls of a municipality [is not reasonable]. We support each other,” said Brian Hodges, Camden’s economic development director.

Camden sat next to Rockland. They both sat across from Belfast’s Thomas Kittredge, another town economic development director.

“I don’t think there will be many instances where we have to fight over the same things. We’re different enough. Maybe that’s naive — maybe we will have conflicts,” Kittredge told the group.

The midcoast is a bit behind in the regional business growth world, apparently.

“Unlike most of the rest of the state these two counties [Waldo and Knox] don’t have a mature regional planning organization. Penobscot has Eastern Maine Development since the 1960s,” said Justin Holmes of the Maine Coast Economic Alliance. “This is us trying to keep up with what the rest of the state has done years ago. There is a real effort to work regionally here.”

People represented at the fourth, most recent meeting of the group were Maine Coast Economic Alliance, Midcoast Magnet (a networking nonprofit), Penobscot Bay Regional Chamber of Commerce and town officials from Rockland, Belfast and Camden.

The people worked together to discuss a grant the Midcoast Magnet was after, to help the region market itself to the new media and technology sectors of the local economy. The attending members also made jokes about whose town was more awesome before taking up an issue that soon might affect everyone in the midcoast: a natural gas line.

“We’re all going to [Rockland’s economic development director] Audrey’s house on Monday morning. Her workhouse,” said Dan Bookham, executive director of the local Chamber of Commerce. “There is a meeting at 10 a.m. at Rockland City Hall about a potential natural gas line coming down Route 17 and then spurring it out to Warren, Rockport and maybe points farther east.”

Two gas companies are interested in nearby Thomaston’s Dragon Cement’s energy use and seeing whether it and other large energy consumers might want to switch to natural gas. If there is enough business interest, the companies will move in, according to Bookham.

This sparked conversation.

“I wouldn’t mind having our city put a TIF behind that, if it would help,” Kittredge offered. Tax increment financing is a tax incentive program that allows businesses to save some tax money and to keep the money they do spend to stay in the area.

“No small potatoes,” Holmes said.

Before the group adjourned for the night, its members had to talk about the future of the group. What are they going to be and what are their goals?

“My ideal operation is if an opportunity comes along your desk and you like it, it’s yours. But if you can’t use it, it comes here instead of New Hampshire or Vermont. If someone else has the commercial space that would fit that piece, they get it,” Bookham suggested.

“We need to be supportive of collaborative efforts. That’s what Rockport wants to do,” said Tom Ford, the Rockport economic development director. “This group must be a cooperative effort. We are competing against each other in a certain sense, but we need to have a genuine public presence: We are the midcoast and we rise or fall collectively.”

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