MICHAEL W. AUBE

Economic development looks back — and forward

Posted Dec. 29, 2011, at 5:55 p.m.
Last modified Dec. 30, 2011, at 3:10 p.m.

The focus of economic development — to always be looking ahead and planning for the future — is becoming increasingly more challenging. However, as 2011 comes to an end, we can’t help but reflect on where we are economically compared to where we had hoped to be.

After more than 3 years in a recession, many of us had hoped that 2011 would be a year of recovery. Unfortunately, the overall numbers of job creation, unemployment and restructuring of the economy didn’t result in a turnaround at the pace many of us hoped for. Yet there were positive outcomes and investments in our state that we should celebrate.

Maine is fortunate to have the entire state covered by regional economic development organizations, called economic development districts. The seven districts cover specific territories from Kittery to Fort Kent, and each has local leadership and a regional strategy that affects its local economy, as well as the economy of the entire state.

For decades our nation has adhered to a “sphere of influence” policy. This means political or economic influence is wielded over a territorial area. The same is true of economic development, and the sphere of influence works because regions tend to have the greatest impact on the local economy. A regional economic strategy allows economic development to build upon its existing assets. The development of a particular event or project affects the region by its sphere of influence on income, jobs and investment.

For the last two years, the EDDs have been working in partnership to build the regional strategies on asset development and “projects of regional significance” through an initiative called Mobilize Maine. All of Maine is better off if these strategies succeed.

Recently I asked my colleagues who manage the regional EDDs the following question: “In 2011, what transformative economic development activity has impacted the regional economy?” A few of their thoughts are below:

Androscoggin Council of Government

The expansion of the Carbonite Customer support center in Lewiston added more than 150 new jobs. Carbonite was ranked as the ninth fastest growing private company and the fastest growing services company by Inc. Magazine in 2010, and its Boston-based location has been named “Best Places to Work” for several years.

Kennebec Valley Council of Governments

Kennebec Valley Gas Co. made a major announcement to develop and invest in an $86 million natural gas pipeline serving municipalities and commercial, industrial, institutional and residential users along the route from Richmond to Madison. The project will move more than 3 million BTUs of energy each year.

Southern Maine Regional Planning Commission

Hussey Seating purchased Clarin Seating of Illinois and will move the manufacturing operations to Berwick, adding more than 60 new jobs. Several other manufacturers and small businesses expanded, such as Yankee Candle, Traditional Woodworks, Maine Coast Shellfish and Kate’s Homemade Butter.

Mid Coast Development

New opportunities at the former Brunswick Naval Air facility included the Resilient Communications secure data center, American Bureau of Shipping’s state-of-the-art computer modeling facility, and the partnership between Southern Maine Community College and the University of Maine to establish a pre-engineering program at Brunswick Landing.

Greater Portland Council of Governments

Portland completed the $75 million expansion of the Jetport, and the Amtrak Downeaster rail service, now in its 10th year, topped 500,000 riders. Both of these projects further established Portland’s position as a transportation hub. In addition, IDEXX created 500 new jobs in the region.

Northern Maine Development Commission

As part of the Mobilize Maine effort, NMDC formed a Renewable Energy Industry Cluster initiative, called Generating a Renewable Energy Economy for Northern Maine, or GreenME. It is made up of approximately 60 individuals from the private and public sectors and focuses on biomass with a goal of four commercial conversions this year. To date, 16 conversions from foreign oil to biomass have been completed, investing $20 million in new equipment, displacing 800,000 gallons of foreign oil and saving the commercial establishments more than $2 million annually. The research shows that for every gallon of foreign oil purchased, 78 cents leaves the regional economy; for every ton of biomass purchased, the full dollar stays in the region.

Eastern Maine Development Corp.

The decision to construct a state of the art business, entertainment and convention center in Bangor, also known as The Maine Center, will have significant impact on reshaping of Bangor area and opportunities for growth. The successful acquisition of Great Northern Paper in East Millinocket by Cate Street Capital will put people back to work, revitalize the forest industry and increase the opportunities for intermodal transportation in Searsport.

Additionally, the successful and remarkable effort by the Eastport Port Authority to continue exporting agricultural products has had a positive impact economically. Who would have thought live cattle from Texas could get to Turkey by way of Eastport, Maine?

These are just a few of the regional economic development highlights from 2011. They have had tremendous impact on their sphere of influence as well as on the state. Each will, no doubt, continue to affect our economic growth, and these small, regional steps will have a lasting impact on the total of Maine’s economy. While an overall economic recovery may not have been experienced in the last year, there is much to celebrate and with the continuation of regional strategies that trend will continue.

Enjoy 2012.

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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