I often address the need for regional economic development because I truly believe that kind of economic strategy will be successful in Maine. As we move to a time when the economy seems to be picking up, we will have choices and decisions to make on how we participate in the next wave of economic growth. I am not a surfer but I understand that the ride can be more robust and have greater length if we catch the right wave at the right time.
According to Michael E. Porter of Harvard Business School a “rural region needs a distinctive strategy that reflects its unique strengths, its particular mix of clusters, and which integrates its economy with the closest urban centers.”
As a leading authority on competitive strategy and the competitiveness and economic development of nations, states and regions, Porter is well suited to advance the thinking that “regions” need clear, measurable economic development strategies if rural areas are to keep pace with their urban counterparts. Many of the suggestions from Porter and others involved in Rural Economic Development are being adopted by the Mobilize Eastern Maine effort.
What began as an effort to bring together various regional economic development resources of the greater Bangor region has developed into solid leadership to advance a shared vision. That vision is built on identifying the assets of the region and delivering projects that are based on a network of collaboration between public and private organizations which coordinates the tactical efforts needed for success.
Identification of regional assets, those that exist and those that are emerging, has been achieved through analysis and dialogue among all types of institutions. What’s changed is that we no longer see success of the region based upon a single event, project or outcome, but rather the constant improvement of regional economic opportunity through a new matrix of measurement. The measures of success are moving from employment growth, work force participation and poverty rates to a new matrix based upon the tools of innovation like venture capital, new establishments and entrepreneurship, fast-growing companies and patents and other indicators. Successful, innovative achievements will increase employment growth, provide more quality jobs and lower poverty rates in the region.
According to Porter, the old model of rural economic development was a policy that was driven by government and its decisions, policies and incentives. However, the new approach deems that the strategy must be driven by a collaborative process involving government but that is led by regional companies, educational institutions and other entities.
While it remains critically important for the state of Maine to modify tax policy, modify regulations and design state delivery systems, it is more important in today’s global marketplace for regions to locally design and implement the strategies for rural economic growth. The state should seek ways to embrace regional delivery systems, building on the capacity and leadership of the organizations who have a vested interest in their success. Centralized decision making in economic development areas such as research and development, access to capital and investment in work force development must expand to address the regional effort. Collaboration and investment in emerging businesses must have quick access to funds and a work force development strategy that is not just for the present, but is able to quickly adapt to jobs in emerging industries.
If our state is to succeed, Maine state government must end its paternalistic and noncollaborative relationships with local and regional efforts. As a state, we must embrace innovation. We must grow regional capacity. We must support and build on our heritage of Yankee ingenuity and ability to compete. Failure to catch this wave will result in fewer businesses growing and our young, educated entrepreneurs will leave a state which chooses to create jobs with no future instead of creating wealth and careers.
Michael W. Aube is president of Eastern Maine Development Corporation 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.