AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage unveiled Maine’s first officially designated “business-friendly” communities Wednesday morning, giving the title to nine towns and cities around the state.
Nineteen communities had been nominated for the new program but only Augusta, Bath, Biddeford, Brewer, Bucksport, Guilford, Lincoln, Saco and Sanford made the cut. Two of the state’s largest cities, Portland and Bangor, didn’t apply to the program.
“These are cities and towns that are committed to being open for business,” said George Gervais, commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development, echoing an oft-heard sentiment from the governor.
The communities that were nominated into the program, which was launched March 6, were evaluated on customer service, business involvement and collaboration, public opinion, and licensing and permitting. The evaluations were done by a panel including Gervais; Amy Downing of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce; John Butera, LePage’s senior economic adviser; Chris Steele, CWS Consulting Group; Chuck Graceffa, Pierce Atwood; Peter DelGreco, president of Maine & Co.; and Andrea Smith of the Department of Economic and Community Development.
The program grew out of sessions LePage held around the state last fall with business leaders. As the state has attempted to make the regulatory process less burdensome to businesses, this program attempts to recognize communities that similarly have tried to be open to enterprise, LePage suggested.
“We have made some modest improvements in regulatory reform. I believe there’s a lot more that can be done. Here in Maine, we have some major obstacles. Some we create ourselves. Some are created for us,” he said, noting federal regulations.
LePage said in addition to regulatory reform, his administration is pursuing economic development by trying to lower energy costs.
“In my mind, these are baby steps because there’s a lot in the state of Maine that needs to be done to make us competitive in the marketplace,” LePage said.
Communities in the program can use the “Business Friendly” designation in their marketing efforts, will be recognized on the state Department of Economic and Community Development website, will get an “Open for Business” road sign and will be a “key part of Maine’s business attraction strategy,” the Department of Economic and Community Development has said. Certification is for two years. Gervais said the state will work with communities that want to improve their processes and achieve the designation.
“Several of the nominees who did not qualify are now working diligently to enhance their practices to meet business-friendly standards so that they may be certified in the future,” said Gervais.
Those that applied but didn’t get the designation are: Cumberland, Falmouth, Gorham, Houlton, Kennebunk, Pittsfield, Presque Isle, Rumford, South Portland and Waterboro.
While the communities were evaluated on a set of metrics, the state also noted key points where each of the successful towns and cities held an edge: Augusta (population 19,136 in the 2010 U.S. Census) for use of tax-increment financing; Bath (8,514) for publishing a “Guide to Business”; Saco (18,482) for streamlining its permitting process and exploring marketing with Biddeford; Biddeford (21,277) for use of TIFs and marketing with Saco; Lincoln (5,085) for a shop-local program, small-business Saturdays and low business fees; Brewer (9,482) for its “can-do” attitude and use of TIFs; Bucksport (4,924) for a forgivable loan program; Guilford (1,521), for rapid processing of permits; and Sanford (20,798) for a breakfast business club.
Brewer Economic Development Director D’arcy Main-Boyington said a key point in the city’s business development efforts came through Cianbro’s modular construction facility.
“The Cianbro project really showed a lot of people how we could pull together a project and get it done,” she said.
Since the Cianbro project, Main-Boyington added, Brewer has successfully attracted a Machias Savings Bank branch and a Lowe’s home improvement store to the city.
Ruth Birtz, assessor and economic development assistant in Lincoln, said the town’s use of TIFs eventually will help the town construct an industrial park to attract businesses.
“To do that, we have to the develop the infrastructure,” she said.