May 3, 2016

Gray-New Gloucester launch local 'Shark Tank' competition

Photo / James McCarthy
Photo / James McCarthy
Tracy Scheckel, president of Gray-New Gloucester Development Corp., is spreading the word about a competition offering a forgivable loan of up to $15,000 to a business thinking about locating in one of the communities.

The Gray-New Gloucester Development Corp. launched on Monday a three-phase competition to lure new or existing out-of-town businesses into one of the communities by offering the winner a forgivable loan of up to $15,000 and approximately $5,000 of in-kind products and services to help launch the new business.

"We were very inspired by the Heart of Biddeford program," said Tracy Scheckel, president of GNGDC, referring to a similar initiative credited with revitalizing downtown Biddeford and which has been copied by other Maine communities, including Gardiner and Damariscotta. "We contacted them and they were awesome with sharing with us everything they had, instead of us having to reinvent the wheel."

All businesses entering the competition must be for-profit and meet other eligibility requirements. In addition to start-up businesses, it's open to existing out-of-town businesses adding a location in one of the towns or a local business that's expanding with a new business concept. Contest rules require that the new business begin operation by May 15, 2017.

Deadline for the first phase, which requires submission of a two-page business pitch, is June 30. Contestants selected to advance to the second phase must submit a thorough business plan by Aug. 15. Finalists selected to advance to the third phase will participate in a friendly "Shark Tank" 20-minute interview with a panel of judges on Sept. 14. The winner will be announced by Sept. 30.

GNGDC raised money for the program through advertising revenue from a magazine it's published the last two years that highlights local annual events, tourist destinations and area businesses. The group also received grants from Androscoggin Bank and worked closely with volunteers from SCORE to fine-tune the RFP.

"One of the most exciting aspects of this project is the community involvement," Scheckel told Mainebiz. "The advertising revenue that is providing the seed money for the project came from dozens of local businesses and the in-kind business support donations came from many local businesses and organizations."

Scheckel said several local landlords have pledged to provide three months of free rent to the winner and the Libra Foundation has offered space in its business incubator at the Pineland Business Campus. OTT Communications is donating one year of free telephone and Internet service. Other donors of in-kind services include: the Sebago Lakes Region and Androscoggin chambers of commerce, Mainebiz, lawyer Robert Avaunt, Tsukroff Photography, PrintMail of Maine and Gray Community Access Television.

Judges for the competition include the town planners from Gray and New Gloucester; Rob Souza, CEO of OTT Communications in New Gloucester; Rod Pooler, owner of True Value Hardware in Gray; Dave Eldridge, senior vice president of commercial loans and Androscoggin Bank; and members of the GNGDC.

Scheckel said the group has been working diligently to overcome the well-intentioned, but-limiting nickname for Gray as "The Crossroads of Maine," reflecting its location at Exit 63 of the Maine Turnpike and the convergence of five state highways passing through town. The problem, she said, is that it tends to encourage a "passing through town" mindset. The development corporation, instead, prefers to highlight both communities as being "At the Heart of it All."

The two communities, she said, are "very symbiotic in nature": Gray has a bustling village that's midway between Portland and Lewiston-Auburn, while New Gloucester is much more rural and agriculturally oriented. While Gray has more retail and a heavier traffic count, she added, New Gloucester has cottage businesses in everything from furniture-making to wool production.

"The beauty of this project is that no matter what the business is, if they want to move or locate here for whatever reason, some place in Gray or New Gloucester can accommodate them," Scheckel said. "Any business that fits the fabric of wherever it chooses to locate in either town would be one that we would embrace."

Scheckel added that the two towns have more to offer than just the lure of the prize being offered in the competition.

"By Maine standards, Gray and New Gloucester are pretty young towns; I want to say the median age is somewhere in the high 30s," she said. "So there is this huge group of men and women, with kids in the schools; there's a sense of community pride that I've seen grow during the eight years I've been living there. It's almost like the best-kept secret in Maine."

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