Maine’s changing economic development landscape: Of mice and men

Posted March 22, 2012, at 5:43 p.m.

Even in a challenging and changing economy, Maine people still have determination and resolve. The question we must answer is where our determination and effort for economic opportunity should be applied. Rapidly changing economic challenges and opportunities require us to develop networks and strategies that allow for quick decisions, execution of tasks and flexibility of the implementation. Tom Peters, author of “Thriving on Chaos,” suggests that American management must revamp “if we are to restore American competition and fend off protectionist policies.”

The “revamp” means we should be looking at economic opportunity from a different vantage point. We should be taking into account new economic realities and the significant changes that require new ways of thinking. This rationale must be as thorough in its analysis as it was in the past, but it should be accelerating.

Many of us can remember working on manual typewriters using several sheets of carbon paper to develop plans, documents and written strategies. Today, a voice-activated computer can spit out documents in minutes, sending them continents away for a nearly instant decision. Taking charge and “thriving on chaos” gives new meaning to “the early bird gets the worm” and requires us to adapt quickly to evolving processes and methods.

As economic development strategies go forward seeking to maximize results, they must be built by a regional network of institutions. Each of these partners should come to the table with human and financial assets prepared to seize the moment.

Simply put, strategies must be short-term and long-term.

If the short-term strategy fails, the long-term strategy should be abandoned as well. If failure occurs, the basis for the strategy was flawed and wrong or more likely it was too slow out of the chute. In a horse race, the jockey of the winning horse moves the animal out quickly, executes a strategy and doesn’t rest until the prize is won. Strategies must be developed and executed in the same fashion.

In today’s global marketplace, the competition is not only businesses in the next neighborhood or town; it may be a business in China or Brazil. Rapid analysis and decision making are a must to compete successfully. This level of competition for investment means the regional network must be a world-class team. It must comprehend the rules, appreciate the necessities and anticipate the challenges. Most importantly, the team must encompass all of the assets of the region that can provide vision and guarantee delivery of services and product.

The challenge of the international financial crisis is the single largest factor in building successful regional economic strategy. Rural areas in particular that have depended on federal and state support may be looking at smaller public investments. In order to achieve success, the regional network of institutions and businesses that helped develop the strategies must be called upon to provide additional support.

Although this is a major factor to overcome, it is also a “freeing” from the old methods of economic development and opens the door to new opportunities by encouraging creativity and the formation of innovative partnerships that result in new initiatives for the region.

For Maine, new economic opportunities for creating wealth, such as energy, manufacturing and value-added agricultural and marine products, are indicators that a new system must advance.

This week, The Jackson Laboratory announced its plan to purchase the former Lowe’s building in Ellsworth and expand the research facility’s mouse-related research. This is great news for Ellsworth and the region. It is obvious that Jackson Lab’s decision makers did the analysis and seized the opportunity. For the region, this development signifies growth from within by building on existing assets and requires the network to applaud the decision and to support the growth of more jobs and investment.

Vacant buildings often have mice. The difference in this story is that this building and this region will have mice with value to the institution and its mission as well as to the people of the region through the jobs and careers their existence creates.

Michael W. Aube is president of Eastern Maine Development Corp. 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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