Governor Janet Mills is setting foot in territory where others have feared to tread. On May 21, she announced that the Department of Economic and Community Development will lead an initiative to develop a 10-year strategic plan designed to build the state’s economy.
The lead on the project will be Commissioner Heather Johnson of the economic development department. She is well-suited to the task, bringing a background in community development and her previous position as head of the ConnectME Authority whose mission was to expand the Maine’s broadband network.
A steering committee including the state economist and members from the Department of Economic and Community Development, the Finance Authority of Maine, the Office of Policy and Management and ConnectME will coordinate the activity. Development of the plan will rely on a coalition including members of Mills’ administration and representatives from the business community, education and nonprofits.
Private sector participants will come from the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, Maine Development Foundation and the Economic Growth Council. The public will be invited to offer input as well.
Economic development efforts in Maine have had a checkered past. A State Planning Office was created in 1968 by Governor Ken Curtis to bring order to preparing for Maine’s future. Governor Angus King’s administration led a vigorous effort to focus on sprawl, an east-west highway and luring retirees to Maine.
The office was reduced in size, scope and visibility by Governor Paul LePage and renamed the Office of Policy and Management. Its primary mission became government cost-savings, a top priority of the LePage administration.
Tasked with finding a million dollars in savings to fund its own existence and given broad subpoena power for unclear reasons, the office was greeted with skepticism by many in Augusta. After four years as head of the Office of Policy and Management, director Jonathan LaBonte left with little notice and no explanation and the office became essentially dormant.
Now the Mills administration has created the next iteration of the office. The Office of Innovation and the Future will revive Maine’s focus on economic development. Its title makes clear the forward-leaning focus. Former House Speaker Hannah Pingree has been enlisted to lead the office.
Economic development is an area in which the state faces many challenges. Over all those years, all those state agencies and many other task forces, Blue Ribbon commissions and joint select committees, the rural areas of Maine have continued emptying out and the remaining population aging.
Jobs have occasionally been brought to rural Maine but many of those have slipped away again, often because of a workforce identified as untrained or hindered by age, disability or substance abuse. There have been studies and reports, Pine Tree Zones, Opportunity Zones, the BETR (business equipment tax exemption) program, a Small Enterprise Growth Fund and many other ideas put forward but few, if any, have had lasting effect.
In addition to the state Department of Economic and Community Development we have had the Maine Development Foundation, the Maine Economic Growth Council, the Maine Technology Institute, the Maine Center for Entrepreneurs, Maine and Company, the Maine Economic Improvement Fund, the Economic Development Council of Maine, Coastal Enterprises Inc., Advanced Technology Centers and the Maine Innovation Economy Advisory board.
There are regional development centers for the Androscoggin Valley, Aroostook and Washington counties, Eastern Maine, the Kennebec Valley, Greater Portland and Southern Maine. There are regional councils of government, planning commissions and development corporations.
It has been hard for legislators to let go of the holy trinity of the early Maine economy: fishing, farming and forestry. There are still opportunities in those sectors but they may not be the traditional ones. Aquaculture, specialty paper products, wood pellets and small-scale organic farms have emerged as more traditional, natural resource-based activities have declined.
At one time or another it has been proposed that Maine lead the nation in wood composites, wind power and tidal power. A research and development infrastructure initiative began in the 1990s and resulted in significant job growth, but funding has been intermittent. While there has been success with some of these ventures, none has become an economic powerhouse.
Expanding broadband has also proved elusive. Every governor since Angus King has tried to make Maine more connected, making it possible for Mainers to work or study remotely from all over our very large state. Many more areas have acquired good connectivity but it is still not ubiquitous.
Amidst this thicket of economic development resources Maine has still not managed to find the key to economic improvement that will float the boats of many beyond the Portland region. The new strategic plan is due in the governor’s office on Nov. 15 and will be released to the Legislature prior to the start of next winter’s session. Once more unto the breach, dear friends, fingers crossed.