Economic development ‘Greenlight’

A new TV show just might persuade you that economic development is possible in Maine. It’s called “Greenlight Maine” and airs on Saturday night, on WLBZ in our part of the world.

It is somewhat akin to “Shark Tank” or “Dragons’ Den,” only kinder and gentler. It’s Maine-ier. Drama queens need not apply. “Greenlight Maine” features two Maine entrepreneurs going head to head each week, ever so politely, competing their way toward an ultimate $100,000 in prize money by the end of the season.

There are no props, funny costumes or ruthless business critics. Instead, a business owner is introduced and three panelists probe the entrepreneur’s product idea, marketing, success to date and plan to scale up for greater production.

Opening night showcased two value-added food producers. Both had plausible ideas. Both were already in production. Both had orders from notable food chains. Both had surely fought tooth and nail to get their businesses off the ground.

It was a good reminder that successful businesses generally start with the same two ingredients: a good idea and a founder (or two) who are willing to work like dogs to get into initial production.

One business was cut, the other will be one of the semifinal 13. A heads up to the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development – “Greenlight Maine” is handing you a short list of ambitious, young companies ripe for investment.

Efforts by state government to promote economic development often have gone at the problem from the other end: create incentives and hope a business will show up. “Greenlight Maine” showcases businesses that have moved beyond infancy to toddlerhood and offers them a crack at resources that will help them mature.

The sponsors of the show are all established and respected Maine businesses. It’s safe to say they know whereof they speak. The program has an earnest air. Maine does not always give that impression. Business attraction here has often seemed something of a wild goose chase that ends in a lot of money disappearing down a rat hole (if a goose chase can end in a rat hole).

A news report in the Portland Press Herald last April detailed how out-of-state financing firms have reaped tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer money through financing instruments that have a minimal pay-off for Maine. Cate Street Capital, a New Hampshire firm, burned through $40 million without a single dollar going to the modernization proposal that won it the money. The mill Maine legislators were trying to save is now bankrupt and shut down, but we still owe $16 million to the investors.

A few decades ago, Maine undertook an effort to develop technology businesses in the state. Seven sectors were designated as areas in which Maine might have a chance at developing technology “clusters,” centers of activity from which additional economic activity would spin.

The sectors were based on existing or emerging areas of expertise, including biotech, composite materials and precision manufacturing, agriculture and forestry, information technology, marine technology and aquaculture. There have been individual successes, but so far, not as much of the bootstrapping that was hoped for within these sectors.

Part of that may be due to the fact that governments do not want to be seen as picking winners and losers, nor do they want to leave anyone out. A state with limited resources might have done better to select two or three sectors rather than seven.

A long-standing economic development organization has just selected a new leader, one with the potential to significantly reenergize its mission. Yellow Light Breen, formerly senior vice president at Bangor Savings Bank, is now at the helm of the Maine Development Foundation.

This is the third turnover in MDF leadership in as many years. That gives the new CEO a blank canvas. His appointment could be a game-changer.

Bangor Savings Bank has been intensely involved in the economy of the Bangor region, fielding a host of programs and projects aimed at building on the area’s strengths. It is a promising background that Breen brings to his new job.

Breen himself has his roots in rural Maine. Raised in St. Albans, a graduate of Nokomis Regional High School and currently living in Holden, he has a better-than-average understanding of Maine’s rural economy. That’s “better-than-average” considering that much of the energy in economic development originates between Augusta and Portland. Not too many of the people who have tried over time to promote opportunities in rural Maine have been born and bred here.

Breen took his rural upbringing to Harvard, where he earned undergraduate and law degrees, then brought that education back to his home state. It is exciting to think that someone who “gets us” will now be able to bring resources to bear on the eternal challenges of the Down East, northern and western Maine economies. No pressure, Yellow.

In a long-ago essay, Breen said this: “The people of St. Albans believe in growing things, building things, making things, not in talking about things.” If he can foster growing, building and making in rural Maine, we will really have something to talk about.

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Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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