Last week’s elections gave way to victors and celebrations in Bangor. After the post-election elation — and at Wednesday’s Bangor City Council meeting — newcomers to the Bangor council will get to work.
One newly elected councilor wants Bangor to become the “Silicon Valley of the East,” attracting start-up businesses to Maine’s Queen City and giving young people a convincing reason — or a plethora of them — to stick around.
“We have a major brain drain problem with people graduating from UMaine and going elsewhere,” said Josh Plourde, 22, who will be one of two new faces on the 9-member Bangor City Council. “My goal is to look at places like Providence, look at places like New York, and steal all their good ideas and employ them here.”
Bangor won’t become Silicon Valley East. But there’s no reason Bangor can’t work to become its own kind of a hub for young people interested in taking risks and starting businesses.
In the 1950s, Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Solow determined that 80 percent of a nation’s economic growth can be credited to innovation. Innovation yields the new products and services that people eventually learn they can’t live without. If innovation is responsible for powering growth, and there’s a shared goal of a thriving Bangor with more jobs and opportunities that give young people a reason to be here, why wouldn’t the region adopt an innovation-focused growth strategy?
Bangor already has a lot it can work with to set itself apart as an entrepreneurial hub.
“Bangor has a really unique environment in the sense that it has a really low cost of living,” especially when compared with a place like New York City, said Plourde, who works at the Advanced Structures and Composites Center at the University of Maine. “Our geography and climate really stand out for people who are interested in the outdoors or hiking and fishing. Bangor is really the gateway to the state’s natural resources.”
Given those and other assets, how does Bangor establish itself as entrepreneur central? Here are a few ideas that could start to put Bangor on the entrepreneurial map:
— When Plourde talks about Providence, he talks about Entrepreneur Providence, an initiative sponsored by three private sector partners — Bank of America, The Beacon Mutual Insurance Co., and the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce — that flaunts Providence as “The Hottest Start-up Community in the Greater Boston Region.” Bangor could use an online portal that pitches itself as the Maine city that wants to help you start your small business. Entrepreneurs often need to know how to navigate a particular region’s regulatory environment, they need to know what funding sources are available to them, they need information about taxes and tax incentives, and they need information about the resources available to them that can help them expand their business. Essentially, they need an informational portal that distills the important points for them.
— The website can be part of a campaign to get the word out about the city. But that points to the need for such a campaign that advertises Bangor to the world — through targeted marketing that develops a brand for the city and conveys it effectively to the target markets. Others in Bangor have started work on an ambassadors program, through which business and community leaders would show potential newcomers around and try to connect family members with job opportunities.
— Bangor could play host to an accelerator program for small businesses. Boston’s MassChallenge entices startups from across the globe to apply to spend four months in Boston. As part of the deal, entrepreneurs with startups gain access to office space and expert mentors who can coach them on all aspects of starting and growing a business. This year, MassChallenge attracted more than 1,200 interested applicants, and about 10 percent of them were accepted into the program. If Bangor hosted an accelerator program, entrepreneurs would become familiar with the city during their stint, and some might even stick around to develop their businesses.
To be sure, the Bangor region — including Orono — is already home to a number of resources that can help entrepreneurs grow their businesses. Orono is home to the Target Technology Incubator and the Foster Center for Student Innovation at the University of Maine. Downtown Bangor is home to a new co-working space that can become a collaborative atmosphere for startups. And Mobilize Eastern Maine is working to generate buy-in to a focused growth strategy for the region.
Building off those assets and developing a few more focused on fostering innovation, Bangor could start to set itself apart as a startup hub. Once it earns the reputation, the success could build on itself.