FARMINGTON — A record number of community leaders gathered Friday for the 12th Maine Downtown Conference, which provided a boost for area businesses while highlighting the annual symposium’s efforts to revitalize the state’s economy.
The series of economic development workshops held throughout the day on University of Maine at Farmington’s campus drew 310 people from 76 communities statewide, surpassing past record turnouts of about 225 people.
Roxanne Eflin, with the event sponsor Maine Development Foundation, attributed the spike to the long list of prominent business people leading the workshops as well as Farmington’s unique regional attractions.
The conference had never been hosted in the western Maine mountains region, she said, adding the keynote speaker is an entrepreneur whose consulting firm works with a lot of the most successful international companies.
“Communities across Maine are realizing there are all these resources and tools to help them,” Eflin said.
One of the most promising tools out there today is the groundbreaking innovation engineering program launched recently at University of Maine, according to keynote speaker Doug Hall.
Hall on Friday challenged the community leaders at the conference to get involved with the college’s new program, which he described as blazing a new approach to business that will ensure Maine’s future is bright.
He told the crowd inside UMF’s Nordica Auditorium that the new program is part of a global push to connect people with new inventions, ideas and other fields of expertise with community leaders.
“Our goal is to reignite innovation,” he said.
Hall, a Portland native who now lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, teaches some of the new innovation engineering courses at Foster Center for Student Innovation. He is also the founder and CEO of Eureka! Ranch in Ohio, which is an invention and research think tank that works with businesses from around the globe.
Meanwhile, restaurants and shops just a few blocks away from campus anxiously waited for the throngs of visitors to find their way downtown Friday evening, according to Laurie Danforth, manager of the Homestead Kitchen, Bar and Bakery.
Danforth said about 30 people from the conference arrived Thursday night, heading downtown for a reception at the restaurant and a little shopping at nearby stores.
But the real windfall for downtown businesses from the conference was expected Friday after a closing reception, she said.
“We’re already seeing them around town, and there is a lot of energy and excitement,” she said in the early afternoon.
During his hourlong presentation Friday morning, Hall paced the stage while delivering a rapid-fire, high-energy overview of what he called the innovation engineering approach to solving the problems stifling community leaders today.
Hall noted technology has created an increasingly fast-paced and interconnected global economy, making it vital to devise new ways to develop businesses and communities.
For example, the innovation engineering program is involved in a website where inventors, researchers and other experts post their services and create partnerships with businesses and municipalities, Hall said.
Hall told an anecdote about a third-generation baker who he helped redefine a family business. The man invented his own tool to stuff pretzels and tapped into an online database to purchase patent rights for other inventions.
The traditional German bakery found itself drawing more customers while earning money as a technology company dealing in cutting-edge inventions, Hall said. He added the same approach has worked for businesses of all sizes.
Hall told government leaders the same principles apply to developing a community, especially those seeking to revitalize downtowns amid trends toward urban sprawl.
He said the downtowns that keep growing are attracting innovative businesses and embracing new technologies. One suggestion he made was for leaders to push for free and high-speed wireless Internet in their entire community.
He suggested towns and cities should start local innovation marketplaces online, building upon the efforts at University of Maine. He said communities should annually seek out and support new start-ups, promoting a business incubator approach to helping new inventors.
Hall also told the leaders to form satellite groups that work with the new University of Maine program, saying they only way to sustain recent progress is through cooperation.
David F. Robinson — 861-9287