The Down East region is taking some big strides in creating a stronger economic climate — thanks to a "help comes to those who help themselves" approach.
When Aroostook and Washington counties were federally designated as an Economic Development District in July 2011, Northern Maine Development Commission became the lead public agency for economic development, with collaboration from Sunrise County Economic Council. The guiding principles are these: We must take control of our own economic future, strategically focus on our inherent strengths and seek opportunities to collaborate and keep moving forward.
As Bob Clark, executive director of NMDC, expressed it: "It's about taking control of the economy and not relying on Augusta or Washington to figure things out."
The best example might be the $100,000 Mobilize Down East Maine initiative. When it kicked off in late June, more than more than 70 business leaders, education officials and citizens attended the introductory meeting.
In time, all seven economic development districts in the state will complete Mobilize Maine, which is a planning framework focusing on a region's assets and opportunities. Community and industry leaders come together to craft and implement the asset-based economic development plan.
At a Sept. 16 meeting, the Port of Eastport was recognized as one of the region's most valuable assets. As the easternmost port in the United States, Eastport is the closest port to European markets and is one of the deepest available. Renewable energy is also seen as a major asset, as illustrated by the first tidal power producer in the Western Hemisphere, Ocean Renewable Power Co., going online in mid-September in Eastport. Eco-tourism, education and work force development also draw attention.
Another example of community members coming together for the common good is the three-year, $2 million GROWashington-Aroostook initiative, a regional planning effort focused on job creation, modern infrastructure and healthy, affordable communities in the two counties. Over the course of a year, the work groups are listening to input from the region, examining and updating existing plans, and preparing models demonstrating possible futures for the region.
This initiative also relies on strong partnerships among more than a dozen organizations, ranging from environmental groups such as the Downeast Coastal Conservancy to health care organizations such as the St. Croix Valley Healthy Community, to educational institutions such as the University of Maine at Machias and economic development groups such as the Washington County Development Authority. Supported by a Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant from a partnership among three federal agencies — Housing and Urban Development, Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency — GROWashington-Aroostook uses federal support for regionally driven solutions. It calls on local voices to define the greatest advantages for a future community that is prosperous, healthy and economically stable.
Also of note is a push to establish a strong renewable energy industry cluster through the $3.2 million GreenME project.
In 2011, NMDC received a $1,928,225 Jobs and Innovation Accelerator Challenge grant funded by the U.S. Department of Commerce's Economic Development Administration, the U.S. Department of Labor's Employment and Training Administration and the Small Business Administration.
Some of the goals of GreenME under the EDA portion of the grant are an expansion of the biomass industry, resulting in 260 direct jobs and 196 indirect jobs in the regional economy; expansion of the renewable energy cluster; and improving wood-harvesting techniques to maximize profitability.
ETA funds are being used to train workers in high-demand occupations that include mechanical engineers, biological technicians, electrical engineers and engineering managers. Educational assistance is available to Washington County residents wanting to become engineers and studying at Maine Maritime Academy and the University of Maine.
Finally, the SBA funds are being used for training sessions in entrepreneurship, one-on-one business technical assistance and coordination of regional, peer-to-peer networking groups providing startups with strategies for loan proposal development and, then, access to financing organizations.