BIDDEFORD and SACO, Maine — Biddeford and Saco are two cities already linked by a river, a history and an industrial heritage. Officials from both cities hope to take those connections a step further by exploring co-branding the communities in order to attract businesses and economic development.
“I’ve always felt that Biddeford and Saco were essentially the same economic unit,” said Biddeford Mayor Alan Casavant. “Rather than compete against each other for businesses or industries or whatever, it makes far more sense to join forces and treat the communities as an economic whole.”
The cities have issued a request for proposals for a consultant to work on a brand strategy to “enhance communications with residents and potential residents and businesses, and for economic development and business recruitment purposes.”
The cities have collaborated closely on a number of operational issues over the years, said Peter Morelli, Saco’s director of planning and development. Eighteen years ago, the two cities and the local combined chamber of commerce created the Biddeford Saco Economic Development Corp., which has served mainly as a lending agency.
The two cities have jointly owned sewer cameras, the fire departments work closely together, they co-run a harbor patrol, and their code enforcement officers coordinate efforts, said Morelli.
But Casavant and Saco Mayor Mark Johnston have been pushing their cities toward greater cooperation, said Morelli. The cities are exploring ways to use directional signs that aid both communities. They’re looking at joint construction of a pedestrian bridge across the Saco River that would serve the two cities’ mill revitalization projects and provide access to the Amtrak station.
The branding effort will be an extension of that cooperation, said Casavant, and may be only the beginning of economic-based efforts.
“Economic opportunities in this new economy are really linked to the uniqueness and geography of the community,” said Casavant. “Biddeford and Saco, with their history and geography, and location on the river and the mills; we have so many positives going for us. A branding of sorts is just a natural first step.”
Casavant said next steps may include creating joint mill zones for economic development and possibly sharing the assets and taxes from industrial parks.
Morelli said the effort should provide an identity for the small region of Biddeford and Saco while also noting points of differentiation. For example, Biddeford is doing well with the development of contemporary arts, particularly in the old mills. Saco is strong in the tourism-related areas, with theme parks and water parks.
Other “twin cities” in Maine have done particularly well in co-branding efforts. It’s almost impossible to say “Lewiston” without adding “Auburn,” for example.
The two cities began working together on a single brand close to 20 years ago, said Chip Morrison, president of the Androscoggin Chamber of Commerce, and have run several campaigns.
Two were “really successful,” he added. The first, the “Cities of the Androscoggin” campaign, started about 20 years ago and ran for seven or eight years. It was a multimedia effort with TV, radio and print ads.
“Most people can still sing the jingle,” said Morrison.
The other launched in 2004, and is the “L/A — It’s Happening Here!” campaign. The campaigns are run in cooperation between the cities, the Chamber and the Lewiston-Auburn Economic Growth Council. They’re now looking at the latest campaign, considering whether to refresh it or go in a different direction.
The reason for the cooperation is simple, said Morrison.
“We’re one economic unit,” said Morrison.
Half the residential population in each city works in the other city, he noted. Every economic development project is seen as a regional project; while its actual location may affect one town’s tax base or another, it provides jobs across boundaries.
And the area has had some success, Morrison said, from the Walmart distribution center to two new hotels and with a third on the drawing board.
As for advice for Saco and Biddeford, he said, “If you’re doing it together, you’re doing it the right way.”
And while Bangor and Brewer — two more cities separated by a river — haven’t co-branded, there is an effort under way to market the entire region through the Mobilize Eastern Maine initiative.
“We’re a small enough area that if we’re really looking to brand ourselves outside the state, or in southern Maine, we need to get companies looking at this region,” said D’arcy Main-Boyington, economic development director in Brewer.
Mobilize Eastern Maine has been working on the regional branding project for several months, said Elizabeth Sutherland, co-chairman of the group.
“Basically it is an opportunity to brand the Bangor region. What we realize is twofold,” said Sutherland. “One, a rising tide really does raise all boats. And if, as a region, we can begin to attract business and human talent, and take advantage of all that our area has to offer — not just what a single municipality has to offer — we can be attractive to anybody.”
One community in the region may not have everything a company might want. But the entire region covers a lot of bases, she noted. The region has six institutions of higher learning; collegiate sports; rural, suburban and urban living; advanced manufacturing; forestry; light manufacturing; shirt-and-tie work; and other amenities, she said.
“We have it all right here — why not take advantage of promoting it all?” said Sutherland.
Sutherland said the branding group was being careful to ensure that the resulting brand reflects what is unique about Greater Bangor. The brand shouldn’t be applicable to “Anytown, USA,” she suggested.
“Once you’ve been able to identify what is truly unique about your region, the world is your oyster,” said Sutherland. “Then you can sell it.”