AUGUSTA, Maine — The Kennebec Valley Council of Governments and the Midcoast Economic Development District in recent weeks gathered business leaders, community influencers and legislators in Augusta for a strategy session focused on regional economic development.
Since local units of government generally prefer to do their own thing when building strategies, it was exciting to see two regions come together to discuss what can be done to retain, attract or grow business and industry.
The norm has been for regions to turn their strategic focus away from what jobs could be created and instead concentrate on the high premium value of additional property taxes to help pay for highway departments, education and critical municipal services. While individual regions cannot ignore their unique needs, this lingering recession has taught us that the marketplace has been altered dramatically and ways of thinking about economic development need to change as well.
In these times, new economic growth and opportunities are more likely to occur when we build on assets, create an environment of collaboration and advance business or industry sector strategies that build a lasting foundation for investment and sustainability.
In many cases, local units of governments are not only working closely with private sector leadership, but also, differing regions in Maine are working together to insure that key assets and leadership build upon market sectors without political subdivision lines.
For example, the Kennebec Valley Council of Governments and the Midcoast Economic Development District, designated as U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Districts, both produce a five-year Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy, which typically includes a list of investments determined to be necessary to underwrite economic growth. Recently, both districts have begun to move away from a “needs-based” approach and instead have taken on a new approach focusing on identifying local and regional assets. The strategies have a clear goal of investing in those assets as the basis for expanding prosperity.
To this end, the Kennebec Valley Council of Governments and the Midcoast Economic Development District are using the Mobilize Maine process to involve individuals, businesses and institutions in this asset-based approach.
The Mobilize Maine process is essentially the same in each district. The principal differences are the respective regional assets identified in each district and the specific regional goals associated with them.
The Kennebec Valley Council of Governments and the Midcoast Economic Development District decided to hire one consultant to assist both of their staffs and leadership teams with implementing the Mobilize Maine process. Doing so allowed staff resources for each organization to increase by 100 percent. This would not have been the case if each region had hired its own consultant. What a terrific example of two regions working together for greater gain.
On June 28, the two districts convened an initial joint meeting of their respective leadership teams and have planned a second joint meeting that will allow the two groups to compare and contrast their work with goal setting and asset identification. It is possible that joint action teams will evolve, the most likely of which seems to be in the tourism sector — an asset that drives the economy in both districts.
Additionally, plans are being made to convene the two districts’ technical support teams, which will be used to broaden the asset mapping process. The support teams are the economic development professionals from each district. Kennebec Valley Council of Governments already facilitates an ongoing conversation among the 10 to 12 full-time Economic Development professionals in the region, and Midcoast Economic Development District is adopting a similar strategy.
This process creates a new pathway to economic success. These two regions, along with the other five development districts in Maine, are collaborating with the Mobilize Maine model and other partnerships. From an economic development standpoint we still compete, but, by working in networks and teams, we share information and staff specialization, which increases our ability to advance our assets.
Economic development has the same goal, no matter the city, town or region. Advancing growth of business and opportunity for the people who live there is key and when one region wins, we can all benefit. It just makes sense to help one another reach our goals.
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.