June 19, 2018
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Who really wants to be No. 1 for business? Maine should flaunt what it has

Photo by Terry Farren | BDN
Photo by Terry Farren | BDN
Dan Greeley of Belfast celebrates after winning in his age group at the U.S. National Cheese Roll Championship, part of the Maine Celtic Celebration in Belfast on Saturday.
By Mike Hurley, Special to the BDN

Forbes Magazine came out with its “Best States for Business” list and Maine held the vaunted position of 50 out of the top 50. Or dead last, the worst, according to Forbes Magazine, that is.

The magazine has its headquarters in New York — No. 21. This alone might tell you something about what makes a business choose to be somewhere. It’s pretty safe to say that Forbes won’t be operating out of the so-called business havens of Virginia (No. 1), North Dakota (No. 2), Utah (No. 3) or North Carolina (No. 4). And the magazine’s owner lives in New Jersey — No. 32. You’ve got to pass up a lot of tax and other benefits provided by 1 through 31 to end up in New Jersey.

These kinds of comparison charts have always bothered me because it just isn’t a fair comparison. Maine has a small population, a fairly large area, and we’re not particularly blessed in things that generate huge amounts of spare tax dollars or income for our residents.

Where many states were smart enough, like the brilliant state of Texas, to place themselves over a bed of oil, we chose granite. Other states have enormous reserves of coal, uranium, gas or huge timber stands. In Maine we’ve been gifted with a vast supply of yard sales. Comparing Maine and our “business climate” to resource-rich states such as Colorado, Texas, Utah and North Dakota is fun, but it’s pretty much like comparing yourself to Bill Gates or to anyone with great or even modest wealth; it’s simply not fair or honest.

There are other advantages different states have over Maine. They’re pretty obvious upon review but worth repeating when in the midst of comparing our states. Some states have large, dense populations. Does it actually make any sense to compare Ohio with 11.5 million to Maine with 1.3 million? Size does matter.

How about just being in the middle of big things? Seattle, New York, New Orleans, Virginia, etc., enjoy the destiny of geography. Where you are matters. What you have matters. Harbors, transportation and crossroads such as Chicago drive and benefit from commerce. There are also great farm states totally dependent on huge federal subsidies to ensure they do not plant too much.

Some states have taken true leaps in defining themselves, such as legalizing gambling and prostitution in Nevada (along with enormous government spending to create a miracle in the desert). There’s the weather. Don’t forget the weather. Florida that never needs snow tires or ever worries about frost heaves still only came in at 22.

In the interest of getting real about where Maine truly stood in the “best states for business” I went through the list of 50. I crossed out all the “free” energy states (the states that stuck a pipe in the ground, and oil or gas came out). Then I crossed out any state that has more than 5 million people. Then I crossed out places where no one really wants to live. I admit I am taking liberties here, but really, who “wants” to live in West Virginia? Or Mississippi? Or Rhode Island?

Throw in Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, South Dakota, Kentucky, Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware and a few other states. I love Iowa, but I’m just saying. These states may have a low corporate income tax, but try and tell your employees, “You’re all moving to Kansas!” Not even Forbes is moving to West Virginia.

Then I thinned the list by taking off Washington (Microsoft ring a bell?) and Hawaii at No. 42, thinking, “Who in their right mind would ever want to go to Hawaii? Who’d be crazy enough to have a hotel there?” Took Nevada off: It’s in a league of its own.

Finally I came up with a truly comparative list. Idaho, 25; Montana, 26, New Hampshire, 31; New Mexico, 45; Vermont, 43; and Maine, 50. (Actually, Montana and Idaho have lots of natural resources, including gas.) We’re all kind of alike and unique in our own ways. We’re smaller in population; we don’t have a big obvious underpinning of financial support; we’re generally cold and rural. And all of us have a really positive, nationally recognized and admired image.

Long ago, I attended downtown revitalization training in Portland. Belfast, my home town, was on hard times, and we wanted to dig ourselves out. What I remember most is that we were told: If you make yourselves into a nice town, or a nice state, business will come to you.

You may not get leaders of the gambling industry like Nevada, or the oil industry like Texas, or be a transportation hub for FedEx like Memphis, or have balmy weather like Orlando, or have amber waves of grain like Nebraska, but by incrementally improving your infrastructure, your towns and cities, education, recreation, taking care of your own, you will make your place a more attractive place for people to live and work.

If you improve it, they will come.

In Belfast, and in Maine, that practice helped bring dozens of small employers and larger businesses such as MBNA and athenahealth. It also kept businesses and people here. In Maine most of the business people and residents I run into value greatly the way of life and the quality of life we have in Maine, and it’s why people move here and stay here. It is why more and more come home.

Maine is better now than it was 30 years ago, 20 years ago, 10 years ago. Maine has inherent structural business challenges: low population, distance from market and a cold climate, and no amount of bullying bluster can change that. But we do have a great and welcoming openness. We have an amazingly beautiful state, from mountains, to sea, to rolling farmlands.

We’re not No. 1 in the “Best States for Business” list — and maybe for some pretty good reasons we would never want to be. But we’re not really No. 50 by any stretch of the most twisted imagination.

Mike Hurley serves on the Belfast City Council.

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