Every economic development strategy relies upon exports. Maine’s economy cannot support high-paying jobs by selling goods and services only to Mainers and the occasional tourist. Continued growth requires us to look outside our borders. Now, more than ever, it is essential that we look to the north.
By almost all measures, growth in Maine exports outstripped the growth in GDP over the last five years. While some of that growth can be attributed to the demand in our cherished water-bugs, much of it came from commodities that have nothing to do with seafood. The growth in Maine exports highlights a key win of the LePage administration and what should be an important priority for the Mills administration: port and rail infrastructure investment.
In 2013, federal, state and private investments combined to reimagine a derelict ferry dock in Portland into a modern, high-tech container terminal complete with rail connections. Port investments made it possible to attract a key partner in Maine’s economic development — the Icelandic shipping line Eimskip. Through Eimskip, Maine now has a direct connection to massive markets in Europe, and European suppliers now have an alternative to the choked ports of our southern neighbors.
While direct shipping had an immediate and direct effect on the Maine economy, the introduction of Eimskip had a far more profound impact on the imagination of Mainers. A simple port investment ignited an economic movement with a new image of Maine at its center; not as the post-industrial dead end of Interstate 95, but as a critical link in a global supply chain.
It was with this image in mind that Maine businesses and institutions began to explore our new neighborhood. We found vibrant economies with innovations sparked by public investment and fueled by the sustainable use of natural resources. We found universities working with industries in ways we never conceived of. We found people eager to grow their economy in balance with the environment and the rights of indigenous people, and we came home with pockets bursting from the business cards of people eager to do business with us.
The LePage administration stoked the Arctic fires even more by establishing the Maine North Atlantic Development Office (MENADO), a sub-agency of the Maine International Trade Center. The office, under the direction of the Dana Eidsness, worked to connect Maine businesses and markets in the North Atlantic, and companies in the North Atlantic with Maine businesses.
In the short time since the rebuilding of the International Marine Terminal, the University of New England has launched the Institute for North Atlantic Studies. The University of Southern Maine has begun planning its own North Atlantic initiative. Two industrial-scale recirculating aquaculture plants are planned for the midcoast, based largely on Norwegian technology. Maine construction companies are exploring ways to help Greenland build out its infrastructure, and the Norwegian cruise ship company Hurtigruten has begun calling on Maine ports.
The momentum is real and work must continue. It is critical that the new administration build upon the foundations laid by the last. We must continue to support port and rail infrastructure investment in coordination with the U.S. Department of Transportation. The Mills administration should be actively looking at what opportunities might be available under the recently passed U.S. Marine Infrastructure Bill. It must also appoint and confirm commissioners familiar with international trade, especially with Arctic and Nordic countries.
Finally, none of these developments would have been possible were it not for the work of MENADO. The new administration must further empower MENADO by giving it the resources necessary to continue the essential work of connecting Maine businesses to the new North.
Benjamin Ford is a partner with Verrill Dana in Portland.