June 18, 2018
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New economic strategy for Maine: Lure workers, business will follow

Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr | BDN
Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr | BDN
By Darren Fishell, BDN Staff
Updated:

PORTLAND, Maine — A new nonprofit has an idea for getting more companies, large and small, to locate in Maine: Don’t try for the whole company.

On Monday, the group Work in Place will officially launch in Portland, during the third annual Maine Startup and Create Week, with plans to host a national conference in Maine’s largest city next spring to bring location-independent workers together.

As they learn more about people who have a boss but not necessarily a fixed office, they want to provide a professional network and support, too.

“We’re not evangelizing remote work, and we don’t need to at this point in time — it’s already happening,” said Misty McLaughlin, who co-founded the group with her husband, Michael Erard.

The group aims to host events centered on that growing segment of the workforce, in part to help policymakers and economic development officials consider new approaches in a far-flung place such as Maine, which Erard wrote should be “low-hanging fruit.”

“At the Portland Jetport, there’s a big sign targeting CEOs that says, ‘Your mind is here. Why not move your company here?’ That sign should totally be changed. It should read, ‘Your employees’ minds are here. Why not let them work from here?'” Erard wrote in an email.

In that, he sees a potential upside for Maine and other parts of the country, opening new ways to think about economic development, at a smaller scale, to address some of the state’s challenges.

“It addresses the demographic challenges the state faces — it can’t solve them, but it can address them,” Erard wrote in an email. “It builds the tax base. It builds a density of talent from which other opportunities and innovation grow. It makes the state more diverse in all the ways: ethnically, culturally, racially, intellectually, economically.”

Leading up to the spring conference, they hope to get a handle on the economic contributions of that workforce in order to help policymakers and economic development officials think about business attraction at a smaller scale.

The couple moved to Maine about seven years ago, bringing their jobs and pay with them to an apartment on Munjoy Hill. The couple, who now live in South Portland, have one child and another on the way.

Since McLaughlin and Erard arrived, they said they’ve wondered how many others are in similar work situations, sometimes called “remote work,” though the Work in Place group employs a broader term, not defined by where a person works but by the ability to work anywhere. Erard wrote about the topic in a 2013 letter in the Bangor Daily News.

Three years later, according to Ryan Wallace, an economist and director of the Muskie School’s Center for Business and Economic Research, there’s still not great economic information about that.

“There’s just not a lot of research that’s been done on this from an academic arena or policy and economic standpoint,” Wallace said, “and from that perspective, it’s kind of exciting.”

To get closer to the issue, Wallace plans to open an online survey targeted at remote workers attending Work in Place’s launch Monday, with responses collected through July.

Eventually, Wallace said he hopes to get grant funding for a deeper and more methodical study of that segment of the workforce, which appears to be growing under two major influences: the nation’s ongoing shift to a service economy and technological advances.

The value of the country’s work is shifting increasingly toward information and knowledge instead of producing goods, and advances in communications make that kind of work possible from many more places.

That’s continued to happen in Maine, too, as growth in service industry sectors has outpaced growth in goods-producing sectors over the past decade.

“It has potential to kind of shatter the traditional models of how we do work,” Wallace said. “What does it mean for a place like Maine with a high quality of life?”

Wallace said that could mean people with generally larger out-of-state incomes bringing their loot to spend in Maine. In places like Portland, he acknowledged that could have a mixed impact, bringing cash into the state but also contributing to rising housing demand and prices.

In those areas, too, the lack of data make it hard to confirm just whether and to what extent those possible trends might be happening.

“I can’t claim anything without having any solid evidence, but I think there’s something there,” Wallace said.

The nonprofit Creative Portland, which aims to support creative professionals in Portland, has signed on as the fiscal sponsor for Work in Place, which will let it operate under its wings as a nonprofit while it gets off the ground.

McLaughlin said she and Erard hope Work in Place will continue to grow nationally after its official launch Monday. The group’s kickoff event is scheduled from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Monday at Portland’s Ocean Gateway terminal.

 


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