ORONO, Maine — In a rare move, the federal government will deploy a team of economic development experts to Maine to help industry, state and community leaders form strategies for reinventing Maine’s forest products industry after a series of devastating mill closures.
The U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration announced plans to send an Economic Development Assessment Team to Maine during an event at the University of Maine Friday afternoon. It also revealed plans to invest more than $4 million in economic development projects in the state, including about $1.5 million dedicated to the beleaguered forest products industry.
U.S. Sen. Angus King said such a team has only been deployed 30 times in the Economic Development Administration’s history, usually in crisis situations. The most recent instance of an Economic Development Assessment Team deployment came in the wake of the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
King, U.S. Sen Susan Collins and U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin joined U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development Matt Erskine for the announcement.
In the past eight years, 10 Maine mills have shuttered, prompting Maine’s delegation to draft a letter calling for the federal government’s aid, King said. In response to what King called a “disaster” and “slow-moving hurricane,” the Economic Development Administration decided to deploy a team to help organize, plan and offer advice.
The Economic Development Assessment Team will visit from Aug. 17 to 19, touring mill facilities, forestry operations and research centers and meeting with industry and local economic development officials to form a plan of attack.
“Next month’s [Economic Development Assessment Team] process will examine how local, state and federal partners can work together to foster future innovation and commercialization of the forest economy,” Erskine said.
Poliquin said the Economic Development Assessment Team’s input could be vital to finding the best way to leverage Maine’s 34,000 workers in the forestry industry, and the millions of acres of woodland that are among the state’s most valuable assets. At some point in the process, however, the best help the federal government could offer could be to “get out of the way,” he said.
Collins, reacting to the grants announced by the Economic Development Administration Friday, said they would be a significant boost toward reimagining opportunities in the Maine economic landscape.
“This partnership is aimed at spurring the economic growth and saving and creating jobs for the great people of our great state,” she said. “Each of the grants that have been announced today support innovation, revitalization of the forest products industry, the promotion of innovative products and economic development throughout our region.”
The grants are as follows:
— $1.24 million to C&L Aviation Group, a Bangor-based aircraft maintenance and repair company, to renovate a hangar into an aircraft maintenance and repair facility. C&L applied for that grant earlier this year, and it now will be able to move forward with yet another expansion and expects to hire at least 50 new workers, according to the Economic Development Administration.
— $711,600 to the Maine Development Foundation to track and measure long-term economic progress resulting from the findings and recommendations left behind by the Economic Development Assessment Team.
— $519,930 to Biobased Maine, a trade association that promotes the use of wood biomass for the production of biobased chemicals, materials and fuels, to develop a “road map” to advancing biobased manufacturing in the state.
— $345,000 to the Bangor Target Area Development Corp. in Orono to upgrade a portion of the center creating a new laboratory so Twin Rivers Paper Co. can relocate its research and development operations from Montreal to Orono. Twin Rivers operates one of the state’s six remaining paper mills in Madawaska.
— $1.6 million to Central Maine Community College in Auburn to expand the school’s precision machining technology lab to allow for a boost in training and increase in enrollment for an in-demand field.
In addition, the Department of Defense announced Friday it would invest $3.3 million in the Forest Bioproducts Research Institute at UMaine to push forward research on converting wood into jet fuel.
Since 2010, the Economic Development Administration has awarded $30.3 million in grants to Maine.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.