April 25, 2018
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Maine economy: Groups talk growth in Bangor

By Matt Wickenheiser, BDN Staff

BANGOR, Maine — In northern Maine, business leaders and economic development experts are focusing on growing jobs in the information technology and renewable energy sectors.

Throughout eastern Maine, their counterparts are focusing on projects that include vaccine production factories, biomedical clusters and a new media incubator.

They got together Wednesday to compare notes on their efforts, and to start thinking about possible ways to collaborate. It was the first official meeting of the Mobilize Maine groups from northern and eastern Maine as roughly 100 people gathered at the Hilton Garden Inn.

“Both regions are hungry for opportunity, both regions are rolling up their sleeves to go after opportunity,” said Andrew Hamilton, a lawyer with Eaton Peabody and one of the principals in the eastern Maine group.

The Mobilize Maine initiative is a state plan for regional economic development that encourages public and private groups to work together to look at existing assets and work toward building the economy.

In northern Maine, the group looked to develop areas that presented growth potential, not necessarily those in traditional industries, according to Walt Elish, president and CEO of the Aroostook Partnership for Progress, a leader in economic development effort there.

Mobilize Maine has 70 businesses participating in the renewable energy industry cluster group, Elish said. The group is supporting several near-term goals within renewable energy, including biomass-to-energy projects, grass biomass and a “buy local” initiative.

There has been some recent success on those fronts, Elish said. The Maine Technology Institute awarded a $1.6 million grant for a grass biomass production plant in Aroostook County. Northern Maine Community College is putting in a specialized facility to train energy auditors and to teach expertise in weatherization systems.

And nine commercial establishments are converting to biomass energy, buying their power locally.

On the IT cluster front, 60 companies are involved, said Elish. They are looking at ideas including a data storage center, health care data management and an outsourcing collaborative — essentially promoting tech companies in northern Maine as a place to do outsourced IT work.

In the Bangor region, similar efforts are under way, said Jerry Whalen, vice president for business development at Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems and one of the Mobilize Maine leaders.

In the biomedical area, the group sees existing assets in The Jackson Laboratory, Bar Harbor Biotech, the University of Maine, Eastern Maine Medical Center and others. It is seeking a planning grant from the Maine Technology Institute to lay out regional development in the area.

Another area they are exploring is based on information technology-heavy work being done at EMMC, said Whalen. The hospital is in the top 2 percent of hospitals nationwide for its use of IT in clinical practice, and is even increasing what it does with technology, he said. Mobilize Maine is looking at the job growth from that IT work possible economic spinoff from it.

The group also is looking at attracting a manufacturing company that will do final production and packaging of vaccines needed as part of homeland security — defense against possible bioterrorism attacks involving anthrax, smallpox or other diseases. In fact, Mobilize Maine leaders are in discussions with a European company interested in Bangor for such a facility, Whalen said.

As a way to retain graduates from the New England School of Communications and from UMaine’s communication program, the group is identifying older, vacant buildings in downtown Bangor that feature interesting architecture and are part of the urban core. If the group sets up a new media incubator in such a building, it could help keep those graduates here, starting their own small businesses, said Whalen.

Though the meeting was preliminary, there were at least some crossover interests the groups want to pursue. Both groups support improvements in the rail system that stretches through the region. And Elish mentioned possible collaboration on sponsoring legislation that would make it easier for certain sectors to locate busi-nesses in eastern and northern Maine, though he didn’t elaborate.

Mark Ouellette, director of the Department of Economic and Community Development’s Office of Business Development, said the Mobilize Maine effort is working because it allows regions the autonomy to identify and go after opportunities.

“Each region’s different — different assets, different people,” he said.

At this point, eastern, western and northern Maine are engaged in Mobilize Maine efforts. Ouellette said he hoped to see that increase next year.

“If we have five, six of the regions engaged in Mobilize Maine, it will truly be a statewide effort,” he said.

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