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August 17, 2016

Federal team begins assessment of struggling forest products industry

Photo / James McCarthy
Photo / James McCarthy
Yellow Light Breen, president and CEO of Maine Development Foundation, speaks during a July 29 press conference at the University of Maine in Orono, as UMaine President Susan Hunter, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for Commerce for Economic Development Matt Erskine, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, U.S. Sen. Angus King, U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, and James Chittum, director of business development at Grow-Tech LLC, listen intently. Breen is co-chairman of the state's Economic Development Assessment Team planning committee.

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development Matt Erskine and representatives from several federal agencies kicked off a three-day Economic Development Assessment Team visit to eastern Maine today with a meeting with public and private sector representatives from across the state at the University of Maine.

Announced last month by Erskine along with more than $4 million in federal funding from the Economic Development Administration, the EDAT visit will allow members of the team to evaluate new and existing economic strategies to address Maine's forest-based economic challenges.

Following the visit, the EDAT will issue a report with recommendations for moving Maine's forest economy forward.

U.S. Sen. Angus King, who along with other members of Maine's congressional delegation lobbied for the visit in response to what he's described as a "slow-moving economic hurricane" created by the closure of five Maine paper mills since 2011, characterized the EDAT visit as a "big deal." He noted after the July 29 press conference announcing the team's formation that EDA has only deployed 30 such teams in its history, with the last one being in response to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that devastated the coastal economies of Louisiana and the other Gulf states.

During the EDAT's visit, regional forest products industry representatives and economic development leaders, alongside officials from federal agencies — U.S. departments of Treasury, Agriculture, Commerce, Labor, Transportation and Energy; the Environmental Protection Agency; the Small Business Administration; and the Northern Border Regional Commission — will participate in a series of economic development sessions, tours and briefings to understand the history and evolution of the forest products industry in Maine.

Yellow Light Breen, president and CEO of the Maine Development Foundation, and Patrick Strauch, executive director of the Maine Forest Products Council, are the co-chairmen of the state's EDAT planning committee. Maine Development Foundation has received a $711,600 EDA grant, which will be matched by close to $200,000 in funds from the foundation to help MDF "support, coordinate and track the economic recovery efforts" resulting from the EDAT'S findings and recommendations.

Today's opening session at the Buchanan Alumni House on the University of Maine Orono campus featured an overview of Maine's forest economy and top priorities, followed by a question-and-answer session. During the rest of their time in Maine, the group numbering approximately 40 will travel by bus to communities in Penobscot, Somerset, Hancock and Piscataquis counties to visit forest-product businesses and research facilities and participate in roundtable meetings with community leaders and other stakeholders.

What the team hopes to accomplish

The goal of the EDAT will be to use multiple federal government agencies and solicit stakeholder input to create economic development strategies to assist job growth in rural Maine communities, many of which have been hit the hardest by the recent hardships of the forest product industry.

"At the conclusion of the EDAT process, regional and local stakeholders will have a bottom-up strategy, developed with input from their federal partners, designed to foster robust economic growth and recovery," U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker wrote in her response to Maine's congressional delegation lobbying for an EDAT visit. "EDATs are not designed to be a silver bullet, but EDA and its federal partners are committed to working closely with you and the Maine stakeholders to come to help struggling communities statewide work toward building a robust and enduring economy."

In addition to Breen and Strauch, stakeholders from Maine participating in the process include: Donna Cassese, representing Maine Pulp & Paper Association and SAPPI Fine Papers; Tom Doak, Small Woodlot Owners Association of Maine; Dana Doran, Professional Logging Contractors of Maine; Steve Schley, Pingree Associates; Steve Shaler, University of Maine, director of School of Forest Resources; Jake Ward, University of Maine, vice president for innovation and economic development; Peggy Daigle, former Millinocket town manager and consultant; Andy Hamilton, Eaton Peabody; Charlotte Mace, Biobased Maine; Charlie Spies, CEI Capital Management.

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