The state’s new Certified Business Friendly Community Program, started by Gov. Paul LePage and overseen by the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, is getting mixed reviews from some who have participated in the process and others interested in economic development in Maine.
So far, the program has certified 14 of 24 municipalities that applied in the first two rounds. A third round of applications is due Oct. 5, and recipients will be announced in November.
Communities seeking certification must submit a six-page application, written largely in a narrative format, explaining what they’ve done to promote business development. The program also randomly surveys 10 businesses in each community and seeks letters of support from businesses and comment from community members.
A seven-member panel of state officials and volunteers reviews the applications individually and as a group before recommending certifiable communities to Economic Development Commissioner George Gervais and LePage.
“The program recognizes that they have processes in place that are as business-friendly as possible,” said Doug Ray, spokesman for the state economic development department.
Certified communities receive an “Open for Business” sign to post somewhere in those communities. The certification is good for two years and includes no funding or other incentives. The program has no budget, Ray said, so signs are made by the Maine Department of Transportation.
Advocates say the certification program effectively recognizes communities that are business-friendly and encourages others to follow their lead. Critics, including some who like the program, say the application and review process is unclear and subjective.
“The evaluation process was an unknown,” said Alyssa Tibbetts, Cumberland’s economic development director. “Our resubmission was basically the same as our first application. It’s still not clear to me what tipped the scales for us in the second round.”
Shane, Cumberland’s town manager, said the review process seemed limited by a lack of face-to-face interaction between applicants and the review panel. He suggested that the panel meet briefly with applicants, allowing them to deliver short presentations and answer any questions.
Others say the certification program’s focus on being business-friendly ignores other critical aspects of successful economic development.
In addition to having sensible regulations, communities must take steps to preserve precious resources, such as historic downtowns and open spaces, said Nancy Smith, executive director of GrowSmart Maine, a nonprofit that promotes economic growth, resource protection and community revitalization.
Municipalities also must have policies that encourage innovation to ensure economic vitality in a global marketplace and that forge partnerships among government agencies, nonprofits and private companies, Smith said.
“The (LePage) administration has recognized a piece of what’s needed to promote economic development,” Smith said. “I hope for each of these communities, being business-friendly is just one piece of an effective economic development program.”
Peter DelGreco, a member of the certification review panel, agrees with Nancy Smith’s three-pronged premise. He’s president and CEO of Maine & Co., a private nonprofit that promotes business in Maine.
However, DelGreco said, the certification process purposely makes no judgment about each community’s economic development goals. It only asks that the goals and the process to achieve them be clearly spelled out for the community and those who want to do business there.
“This is an important piece of the puzzle so that potential investment can happen in a predictable way,” DelGreco said. “Tell us what you’re willing to say ‘yes’ to.”
The sign and accolades aside, DelGreco said, the real value of the certification program is the self-evaluation and explanation that communities must go through in preparing an application. Several applicants have noted the benefits of the program, he said, including Dave Milan, economic development director in Bucksport, which was certified in the first round.
Milan explained his initial reservations about the program and his change of heart in an email to Commissioner Gervais. Initially, Milan said, he worried about spending a lot of time on the application and seeking a certification of questionable value, especially if it didn’t recognize Buckport’s efforts.
“I was wrong about the program,” Milan wrote after Bucksport was certified. “The application process demanded that we review how we do things and to answer the question that is typed on a banner over my desk for me to look at every day, ‘Why should I invest in Bucksport?’ “
Milan concluded that he’s “not necessarily happy with our permitting process and I want to further streamline how we serve our customers,” and he wants to improve the way Bucksport promotes its efforts to attract business.
Disappointed to be rejected in the second round, Ellsworth officials plan to provide additional information requested by reviewers for reconsideration in the upcoming third round.
“We’ve been concentrating on our business community since 2007,” Ellsworth Town Manager Michelle Beal said. “We hired consultants. We rewrote our zoning. Applying for this certification was really seeking recognition for all that we’ve done. It was very surprising and disappointing when we didn’t get it.”
If Ellsworth receives certification in the next round, Beal probably will promote the recognition on the city’s website, where the logo already trumpets its emphasis on “Business, Leisure, Life.”
“It’s a tool in a box of tools,” Beal said. “It’s one more thing we can add to what people know about what it’s like to do business in Ellsworth.”
Like Tibbetts, Cumberland’s economic development director, Beal said the certification shouldn’t be easy to get.
“If everybody got it no matter what the application looked like, it wouldn’t have any meaning,” Beal said. “If they’re scrutinizing applications this closely, it give the process more validity.”
Falmouth officials also were surprised to be rejected in the first round. Town Manager Nathan Poore said they were particularly surprised that the review panel wasn’t satisfied with the town’s 2003 comprehensive plan, which the state approved as valid for 12 years.
Poore noted that some communities received business-friendly certification even if they had an older comprehensive plan or no plan at all, including Guilford. The review panel instructed Falmouth to reapply for certification after it adopts an updated plan.
“We thought (the certification process) would be a great opportunity to take an inventory of what we’ve accomplished in the last few years,” Poore said. “It wasn’t clear to us why (an older comprehensive plan) was a problem for us and it wasn’t for other communities.”
Poore said Falmouth may apply for certification as part of the Greater Portland Economic Development Corp., which includes Portland, South Portland, Westbrook, Cape Elizabeth and Scarborough.
Andrea Smith, a program manager in the state Office of Community Development, administers the certification program and sits on the review panel. Like DelGreco, the other panel member, Smith sees room for improvement in the application and review process.
“It’s sort of been a learning process, how you seek information and how that information is provided,” she said. “It isn’t meant to nitpick their applications” or incite competition among communities, she said.
Smith also sees value in requiring communities to examine and effectively explain their business-development efforts. Some communities submitted better applications that included clear, complete descriptions of their economic development programs.
“(Others) didn’t do a very good job conveying what they do in practice,” Smith said. “They sort of have to toot their own horn. Your community should be able to make its own case for why it deserves this certification.”