Bridging the gaps in Maine’s economic development

By Charles Hastings, Special to the BDN
Posted July 31, 2012, at 4:37 p.m.

Like all states, Maine faces a multitude of economic problems. However, at least from my perspective, it seems as though issues that plague Maine are mostly due to a lack of cooperation between all our various pieces. Simply put, there are many resources in the state but not enough bridges between them all. Maine should be a finely greased economic machine, but instead it seems to sputter out with sporadic periods of growth that never seem to last.

Mainers have a work ethic of being fiercely independent, resourceful and hardworking. While this sounds great, it really is another one of the large challenges we face. These qualities work very well for the workers of our paper mills, but as these jobs decline we see these unemployed workers struggle to find new work. And most of these unemployed workers lack the proper utilities to create their own work. Actually, the concept of creating our own work at times seems completely foreign, yet people across the country do it everyday.

Essentially the underlying issue here is not our ability to work but rather our sources of employment. The problem is that we have been so dependent upon large companies from outside the state for work that we haven’t thought to ourselves that we could make our own.

Entrepreneurs seem few and far between, and all the horror stories of small-town Maine businesses closing up don’t help the cause. Of course, this is linked back to the dependencies on the mills and other foreign sources of labor. Of course, people bring up the argument that Maine has plenty of home-grown businesses, but what are they based on? Trucking and railroads to move paper, logging to bring wood to the mills and restaurants to fill our mill workers. Essentially you can trace the purpose of most all businesses in Maine to support the paper mills. The only exception to this is the tourist segment of our economy, which does quite well. But this cannot sustain us. We can’t find work for thousands of people selling T-shirts next to the beach and make a comfortable living. So whose responsibility is it to find new jobs? The government?

Our government says it is focused on creating jobs, and I believe this is the wrong approach. Sounds crazy I know, how can focusing on making new jobs be the wrong way to create new jobs? Well, our government should be focused on creating and supporting new businesses. My question is, why are we importing windmill parts when we should be producing them? This is an opportunity to use locally made parts and export them to other parts of the country or the world. Why not try to get a bunch of investors together and make Maine a world leader in manufacturing windmill parts? I notice in all other parts of the country, groups of people with ideas are getting together and figuring out how to make ideas like this come true. So why not in Maine?

Perhaps the government’s role should be to find useful resources for new businesses. Maybe they should use the universities as houses for new businesses to learn how to create business plans, conduct general business and more importantly, survive. I know that at the University of Maine the Knowledge Transfer Alliance, or KTA, provided this exact service, and it worked well. However, funding for this is about to expire. The state needs KTA-like services all across the Maine to incubate new businesses growth. And once these businesses get up and running, the state must be the cheerleader for these new businesses across the country.

What happens when we see ambassadors from Maine go to other parts of the country? We sign a new lobster export contract? Let’s see what other parts of the country are doing and fill in the gap. If they are talking about building pipelines across the country, let’s prepare ourselves to build pipes to export.

We have so many different pieces at work here. The workers, the entrepreneurs, the academics and the government all exist in the same place, but it seems like there is no bridge. How do we bridge all of these people together? How do we all get on the same page for us to work together toward one goal. How?

Charles Hastings is a second-year MBA student at the University of Maine in Orono.

http://bangordailynews.com/2012/07/31/opinion/bridging-the-gaps-in-maines-economic-development/ printed on July 22, 2014