Among the 62 agencies and programs proposed for elimination by President Donald Trump is the Northern Border Regional Commission, a relatively new federal-state agency that has funnelled more than $5 million to rural Maine projects since 2010.
Created under the 2008 Farm Bill to aid “distressed” communities in 36 rural counties in Maine, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont, the Northern Border Regional Commission is one of three such regional economic commissions the Trump Administration is proposing to cut.
“For us sitting at the state level, there will be a lot of conversations about why it’s important,” Andrea Smith, one of the commission’s program managers and a staffer with the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, said. “We’ll probably hear from the congressional delegations.”
Smith said the commission was created in the wake of the Great Recession and designed to “infuse some dollars into specific counties” that would otherwise not draw public or private investment for projects such as transportation, telecommunication and other infrastructure.
The commission offers a “first in” source of investment that often requires other matching money from state governments, local communities or private entities.
Last year, the Northern Border Regional Commission issued 43 grants across the four states from a $7.4 million pool of money allocated by Congress.
The commission is lead by federal co-chair Mark Scarano, a long-time New England economic development director who’s originally from the southern Aroostook County town of Ludlow.
Scarano declined to comment about the proposed elimination of the commission’s funding but pointed to what he thought were some of its most notable investments in recent years, including a $250,000 grant to renovate a Presque Isle industrial park building used by medical device manufacturer Acme Monaco and a $250,000 grant for bulk handling equipment at the Eastport port.
Since officially starting grant-making in 2010, the commission has funded 26 projects in Maine with a total of $5.4 million in grants that garnered matching funds of more than $20 million, according to Smith.
Last year the commission made eight awards in Maine totalling $1.9 million with an associated $6.6 million in matching funds.
Those included a $250,000 grant to help fund the renovation and expansion of Central Maine Community College’s precision manufacturing program in Auburn and a $250,000 grant for the Snow Pond Center for the Arts in Sidney to upgrade a historic 1930 outdoor amphitheater and help fund construction of a new learning center.
The Northern Maine Regional Airport in Presque Isle received a $250,000 grant from the commission last year to help construct a five unit, heated airport hangar for medical evacuation aircraft and business clients.
Other grants in the past have included $250,000 for the Passamaquoddy Tribe’s maple processing facility in Jackman; $250,000 for the city of Ellsworth to expand broadband internet access; and $200,000 for the town of Van Buren to construct a food processing facility that was leased to the now-closed Northern Girl vegetable business.
Going forward, Smith said, the commission is still slated to take applications this year and to make awards with the $7.4 million allocated from Congress last year. Smith and others on the commission won’t learn until late spring, summer or fall — when the federal budget passes — whether the agency will receive funding for the next federal fiscal year that starts on Oct. 1.
“We’re proceeding with information sessions” for the applicants, she said. “We can’t wait until May or whatever it may be.”