The best economic development strategy for Maine is to focus on the businesses and people who are already here.
The chances to land significant, game-changing investment are limited, and we’ve shown ourselves incapable in the past of differentiating between a scam – see Cate Street – and massive, job-creating and positive investment, such as Statoil, which had proposed investing more than $120 million in the state before being run off by Gov. Paul LePage.
Our consistent economic development activities should center around things that we already have, and we should understand that we simply do not have the workforce, the location or the economic incentives to attract a new Bath Iron Works or Great Northern Paper.
Helping entrepreneurs and small businesses grow into mid-size businesses is the best approach. After all, these folks are already here and they are here for a reason. We should take advantage of that.
There’s always a but.
Last week, Amazon made headlines across the country when it put out the word that it’s looking to build a new headquarters, which could ultimately employ as many as 50,000 people.
Helpfully, Amazon put out eight pages of information on the criteria that it would use to pick the site for its estimated $5 billion investment.
Just to be absolutely clear: Maine could not host this type of development. It’s completely out of scale with the state and the state’s workforce.
The $5 billion investment is more than the entire state general fund budget for a year and a half. Fifty thousand employees would be like trying to create a new Portland from scratch. We simply don’t have the people.
The project is out of our league.
Alone, we don’t meet even the most basic requirements laid out by Amazon, which include a metropolitan population of more than 1 million people. At 1.3 million population, they’d have to count nearly the entire state to meet that metric.
Lot of buts going on.
The New York Times broke down Amazon’s wish list and crunched the data for major metropolitan areas around the country, narrowing an initial list down.
The four strongest contenders, according to the analysis: Portland, Oregon; Denver, Washington, DC; and Boston.
From there, the Times decided that Denver was the best fit. Not so fast.
I think we need to change that math. Or at least take a shot at it.
Boston Mayor Marty Walsh last week said that he’s not going to get into a bidding war with other cities. That’s probably smart. If you have to trade away all the benefits of landing major new investment, is it really worth it?
But I don’t think this is a question just for Boston.
New England should approach this as a regional development opportunity. Much like a bid for the Olympics or some other mega-venture, we are much stronger if our region works together.
Now, I know that it’s not easy to get past parochial thinking that says Massachusetts’ or New Hampshire’s gain is Maine’s loss or to not give a nod about what happens with our southern neighbors.
But this kind of investment and growth would impact the entire region in a positive way. Think Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. Its impact is felt throughout Maine, New Hampshire and the region.
Let’s be bold. Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island and, perhaps to a lesser extent Vermont would all benefit from an investment on the scale that’s being proposed by Amazon.
Combine our advantages, put together our economic muscle and there’s real opportunity.
We can bring Boston’s thriving tech sector, world-class higher education – the birthplace of Ivy and the modern university – mass transit, hip downtowns and recreational opportunities, several convenient airports, access to clean, renewable energy and the ocean. As bad as climate change is, there’s still no ocean in Denver.
We normally think of the other states in New England as competitors for jobs and business. But this rising tide has the ability to lift the entire region.
It’s easy to see increased express bus service from Maine into a hypothetical Amazon campus, along with improved speed and connections for the Amtrak Downeaster to help move Maine people to jobs a little further south.
Instead of Boston and Massachusetts going it alone, imagine the full weight and expertise of all six New England states working together. Democratic and Republican governors, the combined congressional delegations of all the states, an army of chambers of commerce working together. How can Denver compete with that? How can any single location?
Look, I’m a realist. Getting multiple jurisdictions to collaborate is hard. Benefits are likely to be spread unevenly.
But the simple fact of the matter is, Boston’s gain is good for the entire region.
For economic prosperity to spread in Maine, we have to be smart with limited economic development resources and we should – first and foremost – concentrate on the businesses we have.
But we shouldn’t let that strategy blind us to real opportunities that exist to think big, to be bold and to challenge the status quo that ignores what New England has to offer as a region as opposed to individual states.