EDITORIALS

Maine’s best hope for a statewide growth strategy — without state government

Posted Oct. 13, 2013, at 10:44 a.m.
Crews from Northern Electric Inc. of Ashland install an 80-foot-tall residential wind turbine at the site of Northern Maine Community College’s Northern Maine Center for Excellence in Alternative Energy Training and Education on Skyway Street in Presque Isle in August 2011.
Northern Maine Community College | Northern Maine Community College
Crews from Northern Electric Inc. of Ashland install an 80-foot-tall residential wind turbine at the site of Northern Maine Community College’s Northern Maine Center for Excellence in Alternative Energy Training and Education on Skyway Street in Presque Isle in August 2011.

Maine government is notorious for undertaking economic development initiatives in fits and starts, changing those efforts in major ways midstream based on constantly evolving political priorities, and later defunding them.

That’s why a statewide economic development effort underway that’s had virtually no state government involvement could be Maine’s best hope for developing a strategy for economic growth and sticking to it.

Mobilize Maine began in 2009 as an effort to help northern Maine develop an economic growth strategy based on leveraging the region’s existing assets — its educational institutions, current workforce, infrastructure, geography, capacity for small-business lending — into growth opportunities.

That approach was a departure for a region that had often pursued economic development based on what it didn’t have. (Build an office park, and businesses will come.)

That was also the case with Maine’s six other federally designated economic development districts. For years, they had been developing five-year comprehensive economic development strategies — CEDS, in bureaucratese, that were updated annually — in order to qualify for funds from the U.S. Economic Development Administration.

While the plans often amounted to more than 100 pages each, they amounted to little in meaningful terms — results — and they were indecipherable to the average citizen or policymaker. Plus, the plans for each region were developed in isolation.

Since its start in northern Maine, Mobilize Maine — which is led by local officials and business leaders in each region — has expanded to the rest of the state. Today, all seven of the state’s economic development districts use the Mobilize Maine approach to craft the economic growth strategies they submit to the federal government. The next step, for which Mobilize Maine recently secured federal funding, is to combine the seven plans into a statewide economic growth strategy.

Just as a business needs a strategic plan to guide its growth, such a strategy also proves useful for a state, so policymakers can use it to orient investments in education, infrastructure, tax policy and business attraction toward common goals.

There are a number of states that have crafted plans and implemented them successfully. Some plans have been developed by governors and others by chambers of commerce. What effective plans have in common is broad buy-in.

In Maine, Mobilize Maine is stepping in to fill the leadership void.

As a decentralized, little-known entity, Mobilize Maine is at a disadvantage in generating broad buy-in and building enough momentum so policymakers can’t ignore its recommendations. But it’s crucial Mobilize Maine become a powerful lobbying force for sound, measured and deliberate economic growth strategies in the state.

It can already tout some small successes. In northern Maine, the planning process led the region to identify alternative energy as one of a handful of sectors to focus on for growth. Already in the region, several businesses are converting from oil to wood energy, saving money and jobs, and cultivating a local energy conversion industry in the process.

In York County, the Mobilize Maine planning process was a crucial part of the development of a 10-week community college training program for manufacturing workers. Just about every member of the program’s inaugural 15-person class has secured employment at one of York County’s manufacturing businesses.

In Cumberland County, a more intensive information technology training program is starting up, involving businesses in need of IT workers and Southern Maine Community College.

It’s unlikely Mobilize Maine will measure its success and make its mark through flashy headlines. The effort isn’t focused on attracting businesses to Maine, which are easy to point to as public economic development successes. Its focus, rather, is on growing existing businesses and cultivating new, home-grown enterprises — the source of the overwhelming majority of job growth, anyway.

But it will be possible to measure Mobilize Maine’s success. The initiative’s economic growth strategies include clear, measurable goals. The northern Maine region (Aroostook and Washington counties), for example, includes a goal to grow its working age population by 4.6 percent by 2017 and add more than 3,500 jobs.

Maine’s chief executive and lawmakers can’t afford to ignore the work of Mobilize Maine. The effort, after all, could form the backbone of Maine’s long and desperately needed economic growth strategy.

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