AUGUSTA, Maine — Communities that reduce red tape and work cooperatively with businesses could apply to be certified as “business friendly” under a new program unveiled Tuesday by Gov. Paul LePage. State officials hope the new effort will help align state and local government, making it easier for companies to locate and expand in Maine.
“What a business looks for is stability, reliability and consistency. That’s what we need to bring to the forefront,” said LePage at a Blaine House press conference. “Businesses face many obstacles. They do not need — nor should they be focusing on — dealing with local, state and federal government.”
The proposal is an outgrowth of a series of sessions LePage held around the state last fall with business leaders. John Butera, the governor’s senior economic adviser, said businesses told administration officials that state agencies were becoming more business friendly, but challenges still existed in many local communities.
At first, LePage floated the idea of reducing revenue sharing with towns that didn’t align with state efforts. But officials said Tuesday that there’s no plan to go down that road, and the administration seems to be taking a carrot, rather than a stick, approach.
“Our focus is trying to challenge communities to reduce red tape and promote job creation, and we are looking to partner with them in their efforts to accomplish this,” said George Gervais, commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development.
In the Certified Business Friendly Community program, communities, chambers of commerce, trade organizations and others can apply to be registered. Any application has to have a community’s imprimatur.
A review team of seven people will look at the applications quarterly, with the first review scheduled for May. They will look at criteria such as customer service, collaboration between communities and the business community, licensing, permitting and other areas. Reference letters from local businesses will be part of the process. And the community will have to post public notices notifying people that it is applying for the certification and noting that the state is looking for public comment.
Gervais said the state may look at other ways to dig into what the community is actually doing in regards to being business friendly — possibly using online surveys of local businesses.
“The program is not a competition between communities,” he said.
Gervais said that if a community applies but doesn’t make the cut, state staff will offer to help that town or city to streamline processes and become more business friendly.
Communities in the program can use the “Business Friendly” designation in its marketing efforts, will be recognized on the state DECD website, will get a “Open for Business” road sign and will be a “key part of Maine’s business attraction strategy,” according to a release on the program. Certification is for two years.
Gervais said the state is also looking at giving communities in the program extra points in the competition for federal community development block grants, which are funneled through the state.
Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber, said he thought the program was a good opportunity to promote collaboration and communication.
“We will do better when we work together better,” he said.
D’arcy Main-Boyington, economic development director for Brewer, said communities always have to walk the line between being business friendly and enforcing rules and regulations that are in place. Those local rules must always be reviewed, she said, to ensure they’re not overly burdensome.
She said Brewer would be applying for the program, and added that she hoped the best practices of communities are touted across the state.
“By working together and sharing each others successes, we can all be strong,” she said.
Maine & Co. President Peter DelGreco, who will be one of the reviewers, said the program could be important for business attraction efforts.
“The world of economic development can get very competitive,” said DelGreco. “All companies are very interested in minimizing risk.”
Companies increasingly view predictability in local approvals, and speed to a decision, as parts of incentive packages, he said.
More and more companies seeking to site new operations demand an answer within 10-14 days, he said.
“That seems to be the industry standard now,” he said.
Communities that have discussions about what sort of businesses they will accept can move quickly when opportunities arise, he noted.
“It’s about knowing as a community what’s important to you,” he said. “It requires vision, it requires planning — two things communities should be already doing.”
Besides DelGreco, others on the review committee include Gervais, Butera, Andrea Smith of the DECD, Christopher Steele of CWS Consulting Group, Amy Downing of the Maine State Chamber and Charles Graceffa of Pierce Atwood.