June 24, 2018
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Maine’s ‘business friendly’ towns to get leg up in competition for grant funds

Poland business owner and developer, Joseph Cimino, right, talks with Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner George Gervais, second from right, Stephen Robinson, chairman of the Poland Board of Selectmen, second from left, and Poland fire chief and acting town manager Mark Bosse, left, during Monday afternoon's presentation of business friendly signs from Gervais at the Poland Town Hall.
By Scott Thistle, Sun Journal

POLAND, Maine — Bath is in but Farmington is out. Both Lewiston and Auburn made the cut, but Bridgton and Lubec did not. Biddeford and Saco are in but Jay and Rumford apparently didn’t have what it takes.

Paris officials hope they’ll make the list and they’re working to make it so.

So far, only 25 of Maine’s 492 towns and cities have been certified “Business Friendly” by Gov. Paul LePage’s administration.

State officials say only 35 have applied for the designation by filling out a seven-page application that includes narrative answers and letters of recommendation from local businesses about why a given town should be dubbed business friendly.

Among other things, communities are evaluated on how long it takes to get a building permit or business license, their customer service, their involvement with business attraction efforts and how well they collaborate with others in the world of economic development in Maine.

On Monday, Poland became the 25th town to be certified under the program run by the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development.

DECD Commissioner George Gervais presented Poland officials with a pair of state-made road signs declaring the town’s new status. The signs are part of the reward for being certified as “business-friendly.”

Certified towns soon will find themselves on a map on the department’s website. The map will link directly to a page for each town, detailing the things it does to warrant the label.

Stephen Robinson, chairman of the Poland Board of Selectmen, said when he first heard about the program, he wanted in.

“You just want to be able to have some of this kind of stuff to differentiate yourself with some of the other communities in the state or even out of the state,” Robinson said. “Because with new businesses now, it’s a tough competition out there. We’ve made a lot of significant investments in this town to help support businesses and this is just one avenue, one way, we can show that.”

While the benefits include being able to better market a town for business attraction, they go well beyond just bragging rights, Gervais said.

Starting in 2013, municipalities that have been certified also get a leg up in the competition for state and federal community development block grant funds. Three specific CDBG programs awarded by the state give certified towns three bonus points in the often-stiff competition for economic development project funding.

Those grants include ones for downtown revitalization, micro-enterprise assistance and economic development, according to Doug Ray, a spokesman for DECD.

Just applying for the certification has helped a number of towns, even those who were unsuccessful, discover their business strengths and shortcomings, Gervais said.

“Part of the value for the communities that pursue this is going through that process,” he said, “and kind of taking a look back at what they’ve been doing over the years. In some cases, realizing what they are doing really well and they weren’t giving it any credit and, in other cases, realizing what needs to be fixed or addressed or added to their plan.”

Joseph Cimino, a Poland businessman and former selectman, said Monday’s certification for the town was, “one more cog to help things out going forward.”

“I’m thrilled with a governor who’s very proactive in the economic development area and giving you guys the tools to get out there and do things like this,” Cimino told Gervais, who thanked the town for going through the process.

He also said the state would ideally like to see every city and town on the list but it was ultimately a local decision whether they would apply or not.

Richard Davis, town manager in Farmington, said his town was surprised they didn’t get the certification on their first try but intends to re-apply. He said town officials would be meeting with DECD officials in December to review where they fell short.

“In their letter, they did cite a few examples and I don’t want to be too negative but I would say they were pretty vague in the reasons they gave,” Davis said.

Part of the reason Farmington was denied the certification was a prolonged timeline in making a final decision on certain permits or license applications, Davis said. But DECD did not make any specific recommendations as to what ordinances the town should try to change.

“They said our timelines appeared lengthy,” Davis said. “Well that’s not very specific.”

Even so, Davis said, ordinances that may appear cumbersome to some were put in place by voters to protect the town, and town officials would likely be careful as they looked toward loosening any regulations.

In Paris, officials are looking at the town’s subdivision ordinances to determine if there is a change that can be made to make the application process quicker for those looking to develop property there.

Last week, Paris officials were warned their application might not be viewed favorably under the current timeline.

John Farnsworth, town manager for Lubec in Washington County, said his town, too, was disappointed to not get the certification on first try but would try again.

However, Farnsworth said, the re-application would be something that would have to wait until he had time to get back to it. Unlike some cities with economic development staff, Farnsworth said that was just one of his many duties as the manager of a small town.

He said his town offers a lot for businesses, including a revolving loan fund, for eligible businesses looking to bring jobs to Lubec. Farnsworth also noted he didn’t believe local ordinances — “we have very few of them” — were the primary problem.

Still, Farnsworth said a big incentive for getting his town certified was to help raise its profile.

“We don’t get a lot of exposure way over here in Downeast Maine,” Farnsworth said. “Part of what I’m hoping for is this would help get people to take a look at Lubec.”

Gervais said part of the process involves trying to get a town to self-assess whether it is requiring permits that are duplicating state or federal permits or whether the local ordinance is more restrictive than state law in some cases.

Under the grading criteria, a town can be awarded up to 25 points, depending on how streamlined its permitting systems are. The application also considers the cost of permits and license fees and what those fees are used for by the municipality.

The certifications have also helped some towns get noticed by companies looking to expand. Ray and Gervais said that was the case for Pittsfield, which was contacted by a company after it became certified. Pittsfield was rejected on its first application.

Neither Ray nor Gervais could cite a specific example where a company relocated or expanded because of a business-friendly certification.

Robinson said most companies that were looking to expand or relocate were doing their research and know which towns have reputations for being business-friendly and which don’t. In the competition between two relatively equal towns, the state designation may make the difference.

“They do their homework before they even call you,” Robinson said.

Gervais wouldn’t speculate why some towns, including some of Maine’s largest centers for commerce like Portland and Bangor, had not applied to be certified business friendly.

Eric Conrad, a spokesman for the Maine Municipal Association, said for most towns in Maine the certification really is a point of “civic pride” as much as anything else.

He said Maine towns both big and small were proud of their economic development efforts, both big and small.

“I don’t think there’s really any town or city in Maine that would not (want to) be business-friendly in this economic environment,” Conrad said. He said the designation certainly didn’t hurt.

“It’s one more thing they can point to; it’s one more arrow in their quiver,” Conrad said.

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