Tom Turner had only been in his new position as executive director of the Greater Portland Economic Development Commission for two days when he traveled to Boston in mid-June for the 2012 BIO International Convention.
The largest global event for the biotechnology industry, BIO 2012 is comprised of hundreds of booths promoting everything from nanotechnology to the newest breast cancer treatments, giving the 16,500 attendees a chance to learn more about advances in research and development and what it could mean for their own business or region.
But it was the lack of one booth in particular that caught Turner's attention -- one adequately representing the state of Maine.
"Maine was represented there, just not to the same degree as some other states," says Turner, who manned a booth along with representatives of the Maine International Trade Center, The Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, Fluid Imaging Technologies and the University of Maine, among others.
The lack of a sizeable pavilion showcasing Maine's biotechnology sector at a major international trade show less than two hours from the state's border was a glaring omission, according to Turner, who says that such events are all about visibility.
"You have to get your name out there. People at these shows are trying to exclude rather than include and if they don't see you, that's the easiest way to be excluded," he says. "There is already heavy competition for biotech jobs, and these other states were not pulling any punches" with their displays, he adds.
The lack of a cohesive Maine presence at BIO 2012 and Gov. Paul LePage's recent veto of a $20 million research and development bond are just two challenges Turner must now address from his post as GPEDC's first executive director.
"It's hard to talk about anything more important to economic development than R&D," says Turner. "If you look at what really creates jobs, it's education, and one of the huge outlets of education is to go into R&D. I think if you cut back on that, what you'll do is simply hasten the brain drain. You won't have much real, sustainable economic development without a lot of R&D."
Founded in 2011, GPEDC teams up private, educational and public institutions within Cape Elizabeth, Falmouth, Portland, Scarborough, South Portland and Westbrook to help coordinate planning for business development, retention and expansion.
A seasoned presence in the field, Turner started his career in the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development handling issues around international trade, foreign tourism promotion and foreign direct investment.
Turner made a foray into the private sector, working on international sales and marketing for DuPont before diving back into economic development with the Metro Atlanta Chamber, where he helped to attract foreign companies to the area, including an effort to increase freight traffic through Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
But Turner eventually grew weary of the southeast's concept of economic development, which is centered around "throwing money at companies to induce them to relocate. I call it trolling for smokestacks," he says.
In contrast, Portland has championed what Turner calls the third wave of economic development, a model that identifies and emphasizes an area's strengths "rather than saying 'We're such a miserable place, we'll give you $40 million to relocate here'," says Turner.
He cites biotechnology, health care and advanced manufacturing as obvious strengths in the Greater Portland area, with some less-than-glamorous industries like food processing and fishing rounding out the region's portfolio. "We have an incredible comparative advantage in fishing, and fishing can't really be outsourced, so it's very sustainable," he says.
The oft-cited "quality of life" superlative is another big selling point for the region, but one that must be marketed carefully, says Turner. "Every community says they've got high quality of life -- it's become a hackneyed expression -- but Portland really has it," he says. "If we can get people into Greater Portland and Maine, I think they'll want to stay."
Less than a month into the job, Turner is working hard to make connections with other economic development entities in the area whose support, he says, will be vital to the success of GPEDC.
Turner envisions GPEDC's role as that of a connector, bringing together disparate entities to organize group effort when possible, or referring projects to entities with the funds and capabilities to execute a certain goal. "We're looking at where we fit in. We want to work with entities already doing [economic development] and say 'Here, this might be a good opportunity for you'," he says.
Turner is currently in the process of drafting a list of short-term goals to be implemented over the next six to eight months.
In the long term, Turner looks at global trends like container traffic, predicted to double by 2030, as a potential economic driver for the region. "No matter how much you dredge the southeast, they won't have enough capacity, and they will have to come to other ports," he says.